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In Cole Horan’s three years at Furman, before the coronavirus caused program cuts and forced his transfer to Syracuse, assistant coach Andrew Athens always pulled out the short sticks when it was time to practice footwork.
He used those “nubs” and “cut down shafts” to practice pressing defenders, a reflection of the emphasis on footwork at Furman. They were shorter than the sticks that short stick defensive midfielders used — he couldn’t rely on the length, even in the slightest.
When Horan attended Floral Park Memorial (New York) High School, head coach Ryan Obloj realized that Horan’s feet weren’t moving as quickly as his stick during checks, the first sign of a need for improved footwork. Obloj emphasized agility ladder and ground ball drills, which laid the foundation to help Horan transition from scout team defender to the Paladins’ top cover guy.
When close defender Nick Mellen was drafted to the MLL in May, an opening immediately surfaced. It was one the Orange filled last season with Brett Kennedy, Andrew Helmer and Grant Murphy, but then Jared Fernandez transferred to Johns Hopkins two months later.
Six months after Horan’s transfer, he finds himself in position to compete for minutes at the close defender and long-stick midfielder spots for the Orange. He joined Gettysburg College’s Mitch Wykoff and Utah’s Nick Hapney as defensive transfers who committed to SU during the lengthened offseason. As the Orange begin their final week of fall workouts, with a slower progression this year as players ease back in, those new members find themselves settling into a rotation that keyed a No. 1 ranking for Syracuse last year.
“They’re coming along at a speed that I thought they would,” head coach John Desko said about the defensive transfers, “and they’re doing a nice job.”
But initially, Desko didn’t commit to finding replacements through the transfer portal, instead cautioning that approach.
“If we saw someone that would come in and play right away for us, we certainly would have to take a look at it, but we don’t want to rock the boat either unnecessarily,” Desko said during a May 7 press conference.
But then Horan committed three weeks later. So did Wykoff, and Hapney and Brett Tenaglia, an attack who played with Horan at Furman.
A different look for fallball
Last year, and in seasons prior, Syracuse closed the fall with scrimmages against other Division-I teams in addition to the annual intrasquad scrimmage. This year, though, no spring teams were allowed to participate in exhibitions or competitions, per NCAA guidelines.
Instead of throwing players into scrimmages and contact drills right away, Desko and his staff stuck to conditioning drills the first few weeks. They spoke with trainers Troy Gerlt and Mike Missen, and concluded it was important to have a steady build up throughout the six weeks.
Once the conditioning phase finished, Syracuse began individual drills and ones with lower amounts of contact: clears, rides, basic offensive and defensive sets. In week four, it started with man-ups and man-downs, experimenting with different midfield lines and attack combinations.
Recruiting during a pandemic
During an unusual recruiting cycle, when Syracuse coaches couldn’t travel to summer tournaments or host prospect days like past years, the Orange secured the No. 1-ranked Class of 2022 according to Inside Lacrosse.
Back in May, though, Desko was still adapting to new restrictions put in place by the dead period. How he and Syracuse navigated the upcoming cycle was the “million-dollar question.” At the time, Syracuse’s head coach hoped the Orange would be able to host prospects closer to the cycle, but that possibility soon evaporated.
In-person tours turned into virtual Zoom sessions with Desko, offensive coordinator Pat March and defensive coordinator Lelan Rogers. The three pitched their school, their program and their system to recruits and their families on the other side of their screen.
“Everything was pretty much off of film, memory of tournaments, coaching staff comparing notes about when they’d seen similar players,” Desko said.
For Jimmy McCool, a four-star goalie, March opened the Zoom call with a PowerPoint presentation on the program, its storied history, its present and where the coaching staff wants to take it in the future. That was followed by a Q&A session, and then Desko closed the call with a statement: “Well, you know, we want you. We want you to come.”
“It was really well done, well structured and it is a little awkward when you’re sitting on a Zoom just trying to get a real feel for it,” said Steve McCool, Jimmy’s father. “But it really was a great presentation.”
Jimmy committed less than a week later.
Where does Owen Hiltz fit?
During his Nov. 6 press conference, Desko provided some insight as to where Class of 2020 No. 3-overall prospect Owen Hiltz could line up in the spring. Syracuse returns all three starting attackmen and all of its first-line midfielders, but Desko said that Hiltz — being one of just two or three pure lefties on the Orange — could lead to some playing time possibilities.
Hiltz, who flipped from Denver to Syracuse in October 2019, scored 50 goals and tallied 62 assists during his most recent season in 2019, and was named to the Under Armour All-American team in 2020 despite the canceled season.
“I think the fact that his strong hand and his ability to play on the left side will get him on the field quicker than if he’s a righty,” Desko said.
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