Men's Lacrosse

Between Marcus Cunningham and Nick DiPietro, uncertainty looms on Syracuse’s backline

Ally Moreo | Photo Editor

Nick DiPietro hasn't started yet but has played a lot in each of the last two games.

The praise from Syracuse head coach John Desko usually comes with a qualifier. Defenseman Nick DiPietro is good, for a freshman.

Lately, the Orange has seen a lot of the true freshman on close defense. When Albany sprinted out to a 6-1 first-half lead on Feb. 18, DiPietro entered for Marcus Cunningham and rarely subbed out. After the first 20 minutes of last Saturday’s game against Army, an eventual 14-13 loss, DiPietro took the bulk of the minutes in place of the redshirt sophomore as the third defender.

Asked if the disparity in minutes indicated a change in the starting rotation, Desko replied: “(DiPietro) is a freshman and has been playing well in practice. Sometimes in depends on the matchups, who they’re covering. They’re both doing OK. DiPietro’s doing a nice job, and he’s part of our future too.”

It’s unclear if there will be an official switch, but the third defender spot remains the only position juggling minutes. (Desko had said before Army that Cunningham is still the starter.) The top two defenders — longstick midfield convert Scott Firman and emerging star Tyson Bomberry — seem locked in, and the long-stick midfielder rotates between Austin Fusco and Andrew Helmer. For a team struggling with injuries and inexperience, No. 10 Syracuse (2-1) needs to solidify its defensive rotation to now move forward with the season’s toughest slate of games approaching.

Though DiPietro (6-foot-1, 210 pounds) and Cunningham (6-foot-2, 206) are similar in size, their styles differ. Teammates praise Cunningham’s physicality and endurance while lauding DiPietro’s speed and stick skills. The split in minutes potentially could stem from facing smaller, quicker Albany and Army teams. The proportions perhaps will skew back the other way when facing heavier attacks in teams such as Virginia (March 5) and Johns Hopkins (March 18).

“D-P is really good at scooping the ball off the turf and pushing transition,” Bomberry said. “Marcus definitely brings a really physical presence to the game.”

The pair also has nearly identical statistical lines: DiPietro has five groundballs to Cunningham’s four and each has one caused turnover. Through three games, the starting defensive line has 21 groundballs and seven caused turnovers, a decline from 23 and 13, respectively, over the same period last year.

Cunningham served as the fourth defender last season, scooping up three groundballs and causing two turnovers in 10 games. He appeared to stronghold a starting spot entering this season. He’s the first name that came to mind for Desko when asked about replacing preseason All-American defender Nick Mellen, while DiPietro was more of an afterthought, to be worked in slowly. Though Desko left the Harvard scrimmage impressed for the defender’s age.

The redshirt sophomore played a strong majority of the minutes in a season-opening, 13-goal win over Siena, but has appeared irregularly since. Cunningham had a pair of late slides and lost his man as Albany built a five-goal lead, and Desko consulted assistant coach Lelan Rogers. The defensive coach green-lighted the switch.

“(Cunningham) is a good energy guy, especially this week,” Firman said the week after DiPietro subbed in for Cunningham against Albany. “For whatever reason, he’s been bringing a lot of energy to practice.”

For now, Cunningham appears to maintain the edge. Desko, however, said DiPietro did a “solid job” against Army and has improved his slide package recognition and reaction. Multiple teammates called him poised. In the meantime, Firman and goalie Evan Molloy have taken on mentorship roles for the true freshman by helping him study and feel more comfortable in the offense.

“You’re going to make mistakes (as a freshman),” Firman said. “But if you make them going 100 miles an hour, it’s not gonna be as big a deal.”

The defense, as a whole, seems solidified with one missing piece. The Orange may end up opponent-contingent mixing and matching, or one player could win the job outright. But after the loss to Army, and a game against Albany that easily could have ended the same way, it’s clear Syracuse still seeks answers on its backline.

“We’re still learning about ourselves,” Desko said about the defense, “we’re still trying to figure that out.”

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