Natural selection: Donahue’s shot selection helps him become NCAA’s most efficient scorer
Logan Reidsma | Staff Photographer
The anatomy of a prolific scorer is interchangeable.
Some rely on a powerful shot. Others depend on quick feet. A handful possess a rare combination of strength and speed, defined by one and buoyed by the other.
But Dylan Donahue’s makeup exceeds what the eye can see.
The Syracuse attack was once an undersized transfer with an innate scoring ability that his body couldn’t support. Now his remarkably lean diet of shots has resulted in the seventh most goals in the country’s best conference, and the best shot percentage in the nation.
“I look for the best shot,” Donahue said. “I’ve always been very particular about when to shoot, that’s all it is.”
But Donahue’s not just picky. He’s a marriage of natural ability and natural progression, evidenced by the 21 goals he’s netted on 32 shots as Syracuse’s (5-3, 1-3 Atlantic Coast) leading scorer this season. The sophomore has always known how to put the ball in the net — even as a slight attack at West Genesee (N.Y.) High School — but it wasn’t until he grew into his body and refined his build in the weight room that he took shape as a weapon on the Orange’s front line.
And for a team that has enjoyed minimal possessions in a less-than-stellar first year in the ACC, Donahue’s scoring touch — accented by shot selection and physical strength — is as indicative of his development as it is necessary to his team’s success.
“He was frankly a small player coming out of high school,” SU head coach John Desko said. “He’s just a kid who works on everything that he can work on. He had to get in the weight room and get stronger, especially in the lower body, and he did that and continues to do so.”
Before practices at West Genesee, Donahue would put a bucket of balls in the attacking third. He’d work on his shooting and stick work, dodge imaginary defenders and put shot after shot into the back of the net.
And after practice when his teammates left for the night, he’d grab another bucket and do it all again, his jersey now soaked in sweat and the daylight dwindling.
Yet even with a tireless work ethic, Donahue faced a steep physical disadvantage.
“He was a little kid,” said his father Kevin Donahue, who is also an SU assistant coach. “I mean little. He was 135 pounds in his senior year in high school, and he had to make up for that.”
To do so, Donahue developed what West Genesee head coach Mike Messere called a “sixth sense” that he never saw before, and hasn’t seen since.
He turned down good shots for great ones, and compensated for his inability to size up opponents physically by edging them mentally. Messere described Donahue’s sixth sense as an awareness of where his opponents and teammates are on the field, as well as being able to locate the net from any angle and at any time.
Donahue was named a U.S. Lacrosse All-American as a senior after leading West Genesee in points, and led the Wildcats to three straight Section III titles.
“He had no other choice but to be selective because of his size,” said SU attack Kevin Rice, who went to Skaneateles High School and played with Donahue in the Empire State games. “As he’s gotten older, it’s stuck. It comes from him being one of the smaller guys and it hasn’t changed.”
After Donahue redshirted in 2012, he played in 20 games, starting in 10, for the Orange last season. He finished third on the team in goals and had the best shot percentage of any player who attempted at least 10 shots.
But while he had developed into a slightly bigger player in three years since high school, he still wasn’t strong enough to be an elite attack. So he went to Matt Mancz — a strength and conditioning coach for football and lacrosse who is better known among student-athletes as “Muscle Matt” — and laid out a summer workout plan that would lead him into this year.
“He wanted to get stronger so that’s what we did,” Mancz said. “It was nonstop, every day, and with a guy with his ability, he gained the strength to really tie it all together.”
Mancz put him on a regimen similar to Syracuse’s running backs, which developed his core and legs to simultaneously build speed and strength.
Days started early in the morning and ended late at night. They started in the weight room, where Donahue did everything he could to keep up with Mancz, whether they were working legs or upper body. Then he’d fire shots into the cage with Rice before the two played in leagues at night.
“I don’t think he had a job,” said Kevin Donahue while scratching his head. “I’m still paying for that.”
Now Donahue’s the consummate scorer — a combination of intrinsic ability, selectivity and strength that heads an attack unit the Orange has leaned on this season.
As a team, Syracuse has the worst faceoff percentage in the ACC and in turn, takes the fewest number of shots per game. Yet the Orange has maximized its scant number of possessions with the conference’s best shooting percentage, led by Donahue’s efficient approach.
In addition to Donahue’s NCAA-leading shooting percentage of 65.6, 81.2 percent of his shots are on goal and he’s shot more than five times just twice this season. In the first, he netted eight goals in eight shots in a season-opening win over Siena. In the second, he collected a hat trick in seven attempts in an overtime win over then-No. 11 Albany.
“It’s about making the most of possessions and that’s what I try to do,” Donahue said. “We have to make good decisions as an offense, and I can control my shooting.”
Kevin Donahue, Desko and Messere described Donahue the same way: a natural.
But the sophomore took his natural skill set and blended it with a longstanding mind-set and off-field workout, and the product is supplying tangible results.
Each one of Donahue’s powerful strides is drawn from mornings in the weight room, going rep for rep with Mancz. Each dodge past a defender mimics a move made to shed an invisible competitor with no one around. Each temptation to shoot reminds him of a time when he could count his scoring opportunities on two hands.
And shots remain scarce and in a way, sacred. Because if the chance isn’t perfect, Donahue moves on and waits until another one is.
Published on April 1, 2014 at 2:00 am