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Syracuse men’s lacrosse seeks to bounce back in ACC opener against No. 12 North Carolina

Jackson Birtwistle (9) celebrates with teammates following one of his three goals on the day in a 15-12 loss to Maryland.
Jackson Birtwistle (9) celebrates with teammates following one of his three goals on the day in a 15-12 loss to Maryland.

February has been a month of firsts for Syracuse men’s lacrosse. Two weeks ago, the Orange saw their first 3-0 start for the first time since 2020. This past weekend, SU saw its first loss in 2023.

The defeat came at the hands of the defending national champion, No. 9 Maryland, who took care of business at home, topping the then-No. 18 Orange (3-1, 0-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) 15-12. In a game featuring 79 shots, 50 of them came from a UMD stick. SU shot the ball well, finishing with a 41% shooting percentage on 12-of-29. That clip was much higher than Maryland’s 30% (15-of-50), but the 21 fewer shots were too much for the ‘Cuse to overcome.

The struggle at the face-off X was the storyline for Syracuse all game. Johnny Richiusa joined the Orange this season as a graduate transfer from Canisius. The Rochester, N.Y. product has managed to do well enough through SU’s first three games, aiming to fill a position the ‘Cuse has struggled with over the past few years. UMD’s faceoff man, Luke Wierman, was a completely different beast for Richiusa. Last season, Wierman set became the program record holder for faceoffs won (298) in a single season. The senior remains one of the top FOGOs in the country and displayed why on Saturday. The Pennsylvanian asserted his dominance throughout the entirety of the game, leaving Richiusa with just a 22.5% faceoff rate. Wierman’s dominance had the SU defense under constant pressure, leaving the Syracuse offense idling.

One of the bright spots for the Orange was the performance of the midfielders. Redshirt sophomore Jackson Birtwistle notched his second hat trick of the season, leading the SU offense with three goals on the day. Freshman Michael Leo chipped in on the scoring adding two goals on the day, including this ripper in the third frame:

On the defensive end, Will Mark gave everything he had in net to keep Syracuse in the game. The goalkeeper saw 50 shots come his way, 33 of which came on goal. The LIU transfer tallied 18 saves for a 55% save percentage, knocking down anything he could with stick or body.

“It just keeps me on my toes,” Mark said postgame. “It’s nothing I haven’t experienced in my past, I’m used to a lot of shots. So, I’m pretty prepared for that. But it leaves a bad taste in my mouth, really wanted that one.”

Now, the goalie has a chance to help his team get back into the win column, and in the process break a losing skid.

Syracuse has lost three straight games against North Carolina, its last win coming all the way back in April of 2019. Last season, SU suffered a heartbreaker down in Chapel Hill, falling in the final seconds. UNC’s Chris Gray found twine with just 15 seconds remaining, pushing the Tar Heels one goal in front of the Orange. The ‘Cuse couldn’t muster up a miracle and dropped its fourth straight game, confirming SU’s first season without a postseason berth in 15 years.

The good news for Syracuse? Well, they won’t have any bad memories resurfacing seeing Gray on the field this week for the ACC opener.

Gray, now with The Atlas Lacrosse Club in the PLL, marks one of the key departures for the Tar Heels. Last season, the attackman became the NCAA Division I all-time career points leader, and was also UNC’s leading scorer for the past two seasons.

“We’re deeper than we’ve been in a while. That’s a good thing,” head coach Joe Breschi said. “There’s not going to be a focal point in the offense like Chris Gray, but more of six guys in unison playing together. I love it.”

No.12 North Carolina (2-1, 0-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) comes into Saturday’s contest also aiming to rebound after a fresh loss. UNC fell this past Saturday in Columbus to then-No. 6 Ohio State 8-5 in a defensive battle. But the Tar Heels know how to turn on the jet offensively too, steamrolling Mercer 25-3 in their season opener.

Former SU midfielder Jacob Buttermore rears back in last season’s comeback loss to the Tar Heels.
Former SU midfielder Jacob Buttermore rears back in last season’s comeback loss to the Tar Heels.

The name to know for UNC is graduate defensive midfielder, Connor Maher. In his second year as a team captain, Maher was Carolina’s lone preseason first-team Inside Lacrosse All-American. Maher was a second-team All-American last season, registering 43 ground balls and nine caused turnovers. The Maryland native has now notched three points and five ground balls so far this season, an integral part of UNC’s top-ranked defense.

Offensively, Logan McGovern has been the guy this year for the Tar Heels. The attackman leads Carolina in both goals (6) and points (10), notching both a goal and an assist in the loss to the Buckeyes. Off the field, McGovern has been fighting a battle with cystic fibrosis, a rare genetic disease seen in about just 30,000 children and adults in the United States. The Connecticut product has never let his struggles hold him back, though. Last season with Bryant, McGovern set the Bulldog’s Division I single-season record with 35 assists as a senior.

Defensively, the Tar Heels have been pretty sound. To serve as one more line of defense past Maher, goalkeeper Collin Krieg has been a force in net. The All-American junior has helped UNC hold all three of its opponents to eight goals or fewer. The Long Islander has started all three games in goal for Carolina, notching 37 saves and allowing just 18 goals. His 68% save percentage leads all ACC goalies, along with his 6.55 goals against average.

A chance to get back on track after losses for both squads comes to the JMA Wireless Dome Saturday afternoon. No. 19 Syracuse also seeks to top the Tar Heels at home for the first time since 2018. But maybe luck is on the side of the Orange. The ‘Cuse is 5-3 in their first home ACC game of the season, including a 1-0 mark under head coach Gary Gait. Game time is at 3 p.m. with WAER’s Coverage beginning at 2:30 p.m. with Countdown to Faceoff.