Scott Firman emerges as star, quiet leader for Syracuse’s young defense
Ally Moreo | Photo Editor
After a career-ending loss to Maryland in last year’s NCAA tournament, Syracuse senior Brandon Mullins approached a younger teammate to bestow a gift and a challenge. Mullins’ impending graduation meant he’d pass down No. 11, the jersey number awarded to SU’s best defender. A casual hangout in Scott Firman’s apartment turned serious.
“He talked to the previous 11s,” Firman said, “and decided on me.”
The then-junior played long-stick midfielder for three years at Syracuse before donning the venerable No. 11. Last summer, SU assistant coach Lelan Rogers talked to Firman about bumping down to close defense. He accepted the challenge without hesitation and is now one of the nation’s top defenders, routinely holding top threats to below their season averages. Firman is one of the most indispensable players to a third-ranked Syracuse (12-2, 4-0 Atlantic Coast) team that has excelled defensively despite featuring its most inexperienced unit in years.
“I never would have thought,” Rogers said, “a long pole coming down in one year’s time could progress and become one of the best defensemen in the country.”
Last year’s defense graduated two players, and the third, preseason All-ACC sophomore Nick Mellen, suffered a season-ending injury. Still, SU has limited teams such as then-No. 1 Notre Dame, Albany and Johns Hopkins to 10 or fewer goals. The buildup to this year’s defensive success began when Firman transitioned to close defense for the second time in his lacrosse career.
The first time Firman picked up a long pole was in fifth grade, when he saw his brother fiddling around with it in the driveway. Mesmerized, Firman took the pole and played catch.
“I’ll never forget that,” Firman said.
Courtesy of Russ Firman
Entering his freshman year at Jamesville-DeWitt (New York) High School, Firman and the long-stick midfielders crowded around defensive coach Bob Elmer. The first day of practice, Elmer said, “worked them to death.”
“We would be honest with them,” Elmer said, “and tell them, ‘Listen, after that first practice, you’re gonna want to quit. But if you stick with it, great things will happen.’ At the end of it, we would say, ‘Welcome to Long Stick University.’”
J-D has produced several Division I long-stick midfielders, Elmer said. Most notable is Brian Karalunas, a first team All-American, Villanova’s most-decorated lacrosse player of all-time and current Major League Lacrosse All-Star. Firman, who chose to wear No. 25 because of Karalunas, entered high school surrounded by high expectations. He was one of two freshmen who played varsity, alongside current Syracuse teammate Jordan Evans.
“When he made the J-D varsity lacrosse team, I had only seen that once before growing up,” Matt said. “… When Scott made it as a freshman, it hit home.”
One year later, Firman and Evans went back to the former’s house after school. The two sophomores discussed where they would play in college, not knowing they both already had decided on Syracuse. Once they found that out, they called head coach John Desko together to finalize their commitment.
“Watching Syracuse lacrosse, going to the Dome from 5 years (old) on,” Russ, Scott’s father, said, “ … This was in his blood.”
Courtesy of Russ Firman
After winning the state title his freshman year, Firman and Jamesville-DeWitt found themselves in a rematch against Garden City (New York) High School as sophomores. This time Firman wasn’t a long-stick midfielder. He had moved to close defense alongside his brother, Nick, and future Virginia defender Davi Sacco.
Tied in overtime, Firman made the biggest play of his high school career. Garden City passed to a player in front of the net and J-D responded by springing its double-team. Firman tomahawked his stick down to knock the ball loose. He picked up the ground ball after a scrum and found long-stick midfielder Matt Kopp, who dished to Evans. The attack scored the game-winning goal — J-D’s second state title in as many years.
As a sophomore, Firman guarded the team’s best attackmen, rather than Nick or Sacco, both seniors at the time. When J-D played nearby West Genesee (New York) High School, Firman matched up with Dylan Donahue, a future teammate and two-time All-American at Syracuse.
“He doesn’t fall for anything,” Donahue said. “He just stays put. He was a bruiser to go up against in practice. I never wanted to go up against him.”
Drawing of Joel White by a young Scott Firman, courtesy of Russ Firman
After his junior year at J-D, Firman transitioned back to long-stick midfielder. He stayed there for the next four years, stretching 46 games including his first three seasons at Syracuse. By his senior year, 2017, Syracuse lost its entire starting close defense.
Rogers approached Firman about making the same change he had once made six years ago: transition from long-stick midfielder back to anchoring the long poles at close defense.
Unlike most players, Rogers said, Firman didn’t resist: he accepted the challenge. Last summer, he watched tape, focusing on how to defend attackmen rather than midfielders. Attacks play behind the net more, while midfielders roam the center of the field.
During practice, Firman honed in on technique in one-on-one drills. Rogers watched him closely, giving him tips on spacing or footwork each day. As the team started six-on-six drills, Firman worked on seeing the full field, deciding when to slide and improving communication to keep the offense from getting open looks. He focused on lateral movement rather than turning his hips and sprinting. Firman’s transition went smoothly thanks to previous experience at close defense in high school.
Coming from a hockey-first family, Firman played the sport through his senior year of high school. That gave him an extra skillset that separates him from non-hockey players, like pursuing ground balls. Instead of trying to scoop the ball, hockey players normally swat it into open space where it’s easier to pick up.
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For Firman’s superlative senior season, there is no defining moment perhaps because his dominance has been so widespread. By the end of the game, coaches don’t bother challenging him. There’s perhaps no example clearer than SU traveling into South Bend, Indiana, on April 1 to play then-No. 1 Notre Dame.
Tasked with guarding the Fighting Irish’s top offensive threat, Ryder Garnsey, Firman forced the sophomore attack to work from behind the net. When Garnsey caught the ball, Firman stopped him from dodging by. Passes in front of the net were cut off. Garnsey couldn’t create as much offense as he had in the game prior, finishing with only one goal as SU downed UND by one.
Firman has locked down some of the nation’s top threats. He held Albany’s Connor Fields and Johns Hopkins’ Shack Stanwick scoreless and Garnsey to only one goal. Countless others have been held below their season average when defended by the 5-foot-11 senior.
“It’s very unusual that a player can adapt and change that quick,” Rogers said. “… It usually takes a couple years for guys to figure out how to play.”
In a position associated with being vocal and commanding, Firman has been the lead-by-example, quiet captain. He knows that’s not his personality, and he doesn’t want to force anything.
That’s why SU goalie Evan Molloy barks directions on defense, not Firman. It’s Molloy’s personality and it doesn’t change the fact that when Firman speaks up, the team listens.
“Scott’s stepped up and he’s been playing great in transition, great communicator and a great leader,” Molloy said. “You can’t ask more from a defenseman.”
Firman uses his play to speak for itself. He said Elmer taught him the only place to “be a bully was on the lacrosse field.” Instead of talking trash to opponents, he quietly stands his ground and nullifies the opposition.
“I communicate when we need to in terms of defensive sets and slides and recoveries, Firman said. “But other than that, I keep to myself.”
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Molloy dubbed Firman “The Phantom” a month ago. In the ensuing weeks, the name has stuck. Each week in practice, it echoes more, redshirt senior Paolo Ciferri said.
That same quiet nature was present in high school, when he dominated competition, earning Under Armour All-American honors and ranked No. 17 in the Class of 2013 by Inside Lacrosse.
This year, there’s a chance for Firman to diverge from the norm. Every year, he’s played long-stick midfielder, Syracuse has failed to make it to the Final Four. After each early elimination, he locks his door at home. He doesn’t want to talk to anyone — just alone with his thoughts. He doesn’t want to watch lacrosse when his season is over.
“The last three years, after they’ve lost,” Nick said, “he’s been a clam shell … It takes a lot to shake Scott, and the way they’ve finished the past three seasons, I know he isn’t happy about it.”
What awaits is one last opportunity to prove himself, and his team. One last chance at winning the national championship that’s eluded Syracuse since Firman arrived as a freshman. One last chance at running onto the field to celebrate rather than off the field in defeat.
Published on May 9, 2017 at 7:35 pm