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Brendan Curry fed the ball to Jackson Birtwistle in the middle of Virginia’s zone, roughly seven yards away from the goal. Birtwistle caught the ball in stride, running adjacent to the goal as his path went toward Curry.
He knew the angle for a sidearm shot wasn’t there.
So, with UVA defenseman Quentin Matsui pressuring him, he stepped forward and heaved the ball behind his back and over his right shoulder for a near-post shot that beat Cavaliers goalie Matthew Nunes up high.
“I figured just to increase my angle I’d just kind of throw it behind my back,” Birtwistle said.
The goal highlighted Birtwistle’s first career start where he recorded a team-high five goals. Birtwistle’s five points were only second to Curry in Syracuse’s (4-9, 1-4 Atlantic Coast) 21-15 loss to No. 6 Virginia (10-3, 5-1 ACC). The redshirt freshman recorded his third consecutive multi-goal game. This time he did it in his first appearance on the Orange’s top attack unit against the defending national champions.
Tucker Dordevic, whose behind-the-back, between-the-legs highlight reel goal sparked a five-goal performance against Duke, saw those kinds of shots from Birtwistle in practices. For the first time all season, the two played the full 60 minutes on Syracuse’s top attack line and combined for eight of its 22 points on Saturday.
“It’s awesome to see,” Dordevic said. “Injuries are a big thing for us this year and having a guy like Jackson come into these last few games and really play and do a terrific job while doing it is, it’s really awesome, it’s great to see.”
Birtwistle entered Saturday’s game with six points on the season, five of which were scored in Syracuse’s last two games — one goal losses to then-No. 15 North Carolina and then-No. 4 Cornell. He initially began featuring for the Orange when they were most affected by injuries, with his playing time quickly increasing in SU’s loss to UAlbany — his third appearance of the season.
But Birtwistle earned consistent reps on the top line in the fourth quarter against the Tar Heels, where he scored twice, replacing Mikey Berkman’s role. He took Berkman’s spot in the starting lineup on Saturday. It was the first time this season that Berkman didn’t start and it was third game he was held off the scoresheet.
Birtwistle tied Berkman’s season-high five points against Virginia, as the redshirt freshman was utilized much more in transition. After a Virginia shot clock violation, Syracuse restarted possession and sent the ball into the Cavaliers half for Matt Magnan, who immediately sprinted forward. He found Birtwistle wide open crashing in toward the left side of the crease for essentially an open-net goal, with Nunes giving him an open left side of the net to score on.
That goal halted UVA’s 5-0 run, which allowed Syracuse to trail by just three goals after the first 15 minutes.
“If you have transition, we’re going to take it, so that’s definitely in the game plan,” Birtwistle said.
Then, similar to his behind-the-back goal, Curry found Birtwistle crashing the slot inside Virginia’s zone, where he scored on a low, quick-release shot past Nunes to tighten the Cavaliers lead to 6-4. Syracuse then pulled within one minutes later, which was as close as it would get to regaining its lead.
Later in the second quarter, Birtwistle nearly pulled Syracuse within four points of Virginia at the half. He scored his hat trick on another feed from Curry, this time along the left wing, as he rifled a shot off the pipe and in. Then, on the ensuing possession, he rifled the pipe again, but this time the ball stayed out and the Cavaliers turned the ball around and made the score 12-7 heading into the break.
Birtwistle’s addition — and contribution — to the lineup is seemingly a little too late for a Syracuse attack that has been without Griffin Cook for nearly a month and Owen Hiltz who has been sidelined the entirety of the season. But his timely impact isn’t going unnoticed.
“The last three games he’s been pretty consistent for us,” SU head coach Gary Gait said. “He’s earned the opportunity to start again and hopefully he can have a performance like he did today.”
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