Men's Lacrosse

SU’s platoon of Austin Fusco and Andrew Helmer rising in importance for postseason

Ally Moreo | Photo Editor

Andrew Helmer has caused seven turnovers, third on the team. He and Austin Fusco are key in Syracuse's first round matchup against Yale.

SU head coach John Desko’s faith paid off on March 18 at Johns Hopkins. With 1:34 left in the game and JHU leading 7-6, Blue Jays star midfielder Joel Tinney dodged by SU long-stick midfielder Andrew Helmer and toward the net to seal his team’s victory. Helmer knew he was beat and used Tinney’s momentum against him, shoving him in the back. As Tinney stumbled, the ball rolled from his stick and into the back of the net. The referees waved off the goal because Tinney’s trip landed him inside the crease for a violation. The play likely saved Syracuse.

That play from two months ago illustrates one of the best-case scenarios for SU’s defensive midfield. The ACC tournament loss to North Carolina where the defense allowed top-side dodges, one of the worst-case. And now, the Orange depends on LSM team Austin Fusco and Helmer to return to form and prevent an early exit.

“They have both played very well,” Desko said. “… You pretty much have to play two poles in (Division I) lacrosse today, especially if we are sharing time with the other team. It’s an awful lot to have somebody play the whole game.”

Therefore, the Helmer and Fusco tandem becomes a key cog for No. 2 seed Syracuse (12-2, 4-0 Atlantic Coast) in attempting to slow down Yale (10-5, 5-1 Ivy) in its first-round NCAA tournament matchup on Sunday at 7:30 p.m. The Bulldogs are the seventh-best offensive team in the country, scoring more than 13 goals per game. That compounds problems for SU, because neither Helmer nor Fusco have been able to stop the defensive midfield’s recent struggles of allowing penetration off top-side dodges. The Orange must eliminate those mistakes, with Helmer and Fusco at the forefront, if the Orange hope to make a push to Memorial Day weekend for the first time since 2013.

“Pretty good guys coming at you (on defense),” said Ric Beardsley, a four-time SU All-American defender and ESPN lacrosse analyst, of Fusco and Helmer. “But they have to stop giving up the top side dodges. … Usually the team with best defensive midfield goes the farthest in this modern game.”

Each bring a similar skillset to the position, evidenced by their caused turnover numbers — Helmer has seven and Fusco, six, both top-five on the team — but each go about their work in different ways. Fusco brings finesse while Helmer plays physical.

Helmer, a redshirt freshman, plays with frenetic energy and is one of the team’s most athletic players, teammates said, and constantly remains lodged in offensive player’s hands. Fusco, a redshirt sophomore, is the quiet counterpart, who sometimes, goalie Evan Molloy said, needs a reminder to be more physical. Though, to Fusco’s testament, he has 31 ground balls this season, third on the team.

“With Austin, it’s making sure he’s not too reserved,” Molloy said. “He might not want to make a mistake. He’s a great cover guy. I try to bring that out to him. Honestly with Helmer, it’s the complete opposite. I got to make sure Helmer’s ready for everything not just beating up his man. It really is like a fire-and-ice kind of thing.”

The pair has appeared on the field together simultaneously a few times. Desko doesn’t like doing it, but will when SU needs to take the ball away and generate an opportunity late in games, or when both are on the wing and he’s moved a short stick down to close defense. The platoon works for Desko, and he’s deployed it regularly over at least the past decade. The one exception, to Molloy, was 2013 when Pete Macartney took most of the pole reps and the Orange moved former LSM Matt Harris down to close defense. Macartney was more athletic, like Helmer, Molloy said, and Harris more of a leader and all-around sound defender.

Desko knew entering the season what he’d get from Fusco. Leadership, teammates said, is undoubtedly his best quality and Molloy said there’s “no doubt” he’s a future captain. Tyson Bomberry can’t remember which game, or what he said, but the feeling remains from a halftime speech Fusco delivered last year that fired up the team. Still, Fusco wasn’t happy with his production.

“I can talk and communicate a little bit more with the defense and constantly not taking any plays off,” Fusco said on March 6 after SU’s only regular-season loss, to Army. “My effort needs to be 100 percent at all times.”

Contrastingly, Helmer was more of an unknown. When asked on March 9 who the most improved player on his roster was, Desko immediately cited Helmer. He praised his athleticism and ability to not repeat the same mistakes he made as a freshman. He also shouted out teammates Jamie Trimboli, Peter Dearth and Nate Solomon. “But if I had to pick one,” he said, “I’d say Helmer.”

“They bring different things,” Bomberry said, “and we need both of them for the playoffs.”

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