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Red-hot No. 12 Syracuse men’s lacrosse awaits high-flying No. 4 Virginia

Syracuse men’s lacrosse celebrates after a thrilling 15-14 win over North Carolina, the second-straight win over a ranked foe.
Syracuse men’s lacrosse celebrates after a thrilling 15-14 win over North Carolina, the second-straight win over a ranked foe.

This past weekend was the day of ‘nines’ for Syracuse men’s lacrosse (8-5, 1-3 Atlantic Coast Conference). In the 15-14 win over then-No. 11 North Carolina, the game featured nine ties, nine lead changes, and nine SU point scorers. Now on cloud nine, the Orange go for their ninth win of the season on Saturday.

Number eight came in thrilling fashion – the ‘Cuse notching the go-ahead goal in with 12 seconds remaining. The game was an utter mess from a fundamental standpoint. If you came for clean lacrosse, you would have had to find something else to watch. The Orange and the Tar Heels combined for 34 turnovers and nine failed clears. That’s a nine we don’t talk about. But in the end, Syracuse did just enough to pull out the win and keep the postseason hopes burning.

It seems like SU has been led by freshmen all season, especially Joey Spallina, the squad’s leading scorer and spotlight of the offense. But on Saturday, it was another freshman stepping into the limelight. This time it was Michael Leo. As the final seconds dwindled down, redshirt sophomore Owen Hiltz found Leo on a horizontal pass. The midfielder made a beeline for the net, diving from the left side of the crease at the last second. The score would prove to be the deciding factor in a back-and-forth game, giving the Orange its second-straight win. The victory marked SU’s second in a row over a ranked team after losing 11 straight to ranked foes and its first ACC win after losing seven in a row over the last two seasons.

“It was a great play by Michael Leo. I’m so happy for him,” head coach Gary Gait said postgame. “Great play for a freshman.”

Goalkeeper Will Mark, a Tewaarton Award nominee, had yet another remarkable game on the defensive end. The senior was a menace between the pipes tallying 13 saves in the full 60 minutes of play. The LIU transfer is now up to 182 saves on the year, the fourth highest among all D1 goalies.

So while at times it may not have been the prettiest win, the ‘Cuse did what they had to do, avenging the 19-13 loss to the Tar Heels back in February.

“Very proud of this team. They stuck together, they hung in there, they fought. They came back multiple times and they found a way to win,” said Gait. “For a young team like we are, we’ve been hoping this would happen all year. We’ve come up short a few times, but today they answered the bell and made plays when we needed to.”

SU middie Michael Leo (7, white) battles in the loss to the Tar Heels back in February, two months before he would score the game-winner against UNC.
SU middie Michael Leo (7, white) battles in the loss to the Tar Heels back in February, two months before he would score the game-winner against UNC.

John Denver did say, “Take me home, country roads”. For Syracuse, it doesn’t get to head home. Instead, it continues its four-game road swing to round out the 2023 regular season slate. But, hey, SU does get to take the hike to the Blue Ridge Mountains to take on their longtime rival, fourth-ranked Virginia (8-3, 2-2 Atlantic Coast Conference).

This Saturday marks the 41st meeting between the Orange and the Cavaliers, the series level at 20-20 all-time. It’s a matchup that dates all the way back to pre-World War II. The ‘Cuse and UVA first met on the field back in 1938, a 13-4 win for Syracuse down in Charlottesville. But while SU does get to forever claim that first victory, it’s been the ‘Hoos that have dominated as of late. Last year, Virginia topped Gait’s squad twice. The ladder of the two meetings patented a new low for the team. The 21-15 loss to the Cavaliers marked the ‘Cuse’s fifth-straight defeat, the program’s longest losing streak since 1975.

Jump to 2023, and UVA is in a strong position to continue its winning ways against the Orange. The Cavaliers began the season red-hot, winners of six straight. Two weeks later, Virginia topped now-No. 1 Notre Dame. Since then, Virginia has gone 1-2 with both losses coming at the hands of Duke. But don’t think this is a ‘Hoos squad that will go down easy. UVA leads the country in goals per game, featuring an attack that has five players with 20 points or more overall. Not to mention the Cavs are averaging a nation-best 11.82 assists per game.

Redshirt senior Xander Dickson has been the unlikely star for this Virginia squad. The Connecticut product primarily played as an offensive midfielder last season, registering 31 goals and 8 assists. This year, Dickson made the switch to attackman to fill in the third spot on the Cavalier attack. But almost no one could have known what would transpire. Dickson is at the top of the UVA scoring charts, leading his team in both goals (41) and points (52) on the year. The production hasn’t gone unnoticed, three weeks ago the attackman was added to the second round of additions to the 2023 Tewaaraton Award Watch List.

The face of the ‘Hoos program and arguably one of the best players in college lacrosse, Connor Shellenberger is back for his third year on the field for Virginia with a lot of excitement surrounding him. The attackman, who earned preseason All-American honors this year, was a Tewaaraton finalist last year and led UVA with 76 points. The Charlottesville, V.A. native is doing more of the same this season. The hometown kid sits just one behind Dickson (51) for points on the season and leads all of D1 with 36 assists.

If Dickson and Shellenberger weren’t already enough offensive firepower, the Cavaliers also boast Payton Cormier, a name that will be called over and over on Saturday. The USA Lacrosse Magazine Honorable Mention Preseason All-American is second on the team in goals (38) and third in points (48). Last season the 6-foot-2, 230-pound lefty led UVA with 50 goals. The Canadian is still a scoring machine. In the nine games that Cormier has played this season, the attackman has only scored less than three goals once. The senior is second-best in the country in goals per game (4.22), and notched a career-high seven goals against then-No. 8 Ohio State back in February.

In the crease, goalie Matt Nunes has been sound all season long and is one of the most important aspects of the Cavalier defense. Now in his sophomore year, Nunes had a tremendous freshman season in 2022. The Texan earned the ACC Freshman of the Year award and recorded a Virginia freshman record of 159 saves. The goalkeeper is heating up at the right time, too. Last weekend against Duke, Nunes notched 17 saves, a new career-high.

“What a first year Matt had here in Charlottesville as our starting goalie,” UVA head coach Lars Tiffany said preseason. “Anytime our staff is asked about rookie jitters or young mistakes we had to endure from our goalie in 2022, we have been perplexed by the question: we saw nothing of its kind. Matt took ownership of the crease and his end of the field, and his strength of character and steadfast play gave the men in front of him more confidence.”

A chance for a third-straight ranked win comes down at Klöckner Stadium. For Syracuse, it also marks an opportunity to pick up a win in Charlottesville for the first time since April 2021. The Cavaliers aim to avoid losing back-to-back games for the first time since the 2016-17 season. Game time is set for 2 p.m. with WAER’s Coverage beginning at 1:30 p.m. with McClurg Team Countdown to Faceoff.