Men's Lacrosse

Despite low ground balls total, Syracuse hanging around in games

Evan Jenkins | Staff Photographer

Ben Williams (37) holds the Syracuse all-time record for ground balls.

Three consecutive ground balls ended Syracuse’s longest stretch without a lead in 10 years.

The Orange did not lead for seven straight quarters spanning from its 14-13 Army loss and Virginia win by the same score. That’s largely because SU lost the ground ball battle by 23 in those games. Fifty-fifty balls near midfield, scrums around the cage and turnovers gone loose often found an opponent’s stick. But four straight pickups in the final minutes against then-No. 9 UVA, including Jordan Evans’ scoop with 1:32 that set up Sergio Salcido’s game-winning goal, revealed how steady SU’s offense can be when it gets loose balls.

“It’s not often,” SU head coach John Desko said, “You can win a game by one goal having a groundball discrepancy like we did.”

The Cavaliers routed the Orange, 43-27, in that category, leading to extra possessions and scoring chances. Perhaps where Syracuse prides itself most — winning the mini-game of ground balls — hasn’t factored into the offense the way Desko would hope. Through four games, No. 6 Syracuse’s ground ball ratio is at its rate lowest since 2014. A Ben Williams-less SU team struggled against Army and a Virginia team gave SU fits on ground balls. Even in a near-upset loss to Albany, SU had only two more ground balls than the Great Danes.

A last-second goal has decided each of SU’s last three games, magnifying the importance of winning 50-50 balls. And despite SU’s troublesome ground ball numbers, the Orange’s 31.75 average per game places higher than four of five ACC teams. SU ranks No. 2 in the ACC and tied-13th in all of the NCAA. That bodes well for Syracuse (3-1, 1-0 Atlantic Coast), which has found ways to stay in games even when it doesn’t pick up ground balls.

Army starts every practice with ground ball drills. Virginia’s run-and-gun style depends on volume, possessions and ground balls. Duke, a team SU hosts later this month, thrives in the category. Every day leading up to the UVA game, Syracuse drilled on ground balls, something it doesn’t normally do daily. Without Williams, SU had come off a last-second loss to Army because the Black Knights dominated at the X and 31-24 on loose balls.

“With them having all of their possessions today,” Desko said after the Army loss, “they had some nice two- to three-minute possessions. A couple of times the ball bounced and it bounced their way.”

Sometimes, picking up groundballs comes down to will. The way the ball scoots off the turf, the scrums that formulate at midfield and the faceoffs don’t always favor the more skilled player. You just have to be in the right spot.

For two years, Williams has led SU in ground balls. This season, even though he missed a game, he tops SU with 23. His 5-foot-11, 192-pound frame allows him to win ground balls near midfield. Williams, SU’s all-time leader in ground balls, muscles opponents then feeds a midfielder to initiate the offense. Winning such ground balls leads to more clears and breakaways, and players such as Williams know what to do with a pickup to outlet and better facilitate the offense.

“It’s not just quantity,” said St. John’s head coach Jason Miller, whose 1-4 team plays SU Saturday. “The key is the tough ones. The 50-50 balls are the ones of value.”

Another potential avenue for SU to examine is the attack. Evans has already picked up 12 ground balls. Evans, Mariano and Solomon have combined for 18 ground balls. Senior defender Scott Firman has nine.

Getting the wings more involved, Desko said, should help. And increased minutes for Tyson Bomberry, a sophomore defender who’s emerged from non-factor in 2016 to the team’s best defender, also adds value. At 6 foot, 219 pounds, Bomberry knocks balls down and grabs passes in the air. In practice, he plays the wings because he’s a quality ground ball player.

Syracuse didn’t have Williams against Army. He would have probably tilted the ground ball battle in SU’s favor. Outside of that, SU is a big, athletic team looking to strengthen its ground ball play in games it could have handedly won had it commanded more ground balls. Still, the conditions are now ripe for Syracuse to beat conference opponents by winning in the ground ball department.

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