Get the latest Syracuse news delivered right to your inbox.
Subscribe to our sports newsletter here.
Watching on TV, Saam Olexo’s parents, Steve Olexo and Faranak Olexo, weren’t sure if it was really their son on the field. Faranak thought she saw Olexo, but Steve said it couldn’t be because he was carrying a short stick, which he had never played with before. So they figured they must be misreading his jersey number.
But it was Olexo making his collegiate debut in SU’s fifth game of the season as a short-stick against Holy Cross. Olexo became a consistent short-stick defensive midfielder behind the trio of returners — Peter Dearth, Dami Oladunmoye and Brandon Aviles. And after injuries to Oladunmoye and Aviles riddled Syracuse’s (7-5, 2-4 Atlantic Coast) defense late in the season, Olexo was one of multiple options cycled through in replacement on defense and on the wings for faceoffs.
“He gives us some depth,” SU head coach John Desko said earlier in the season. “He’s very athletic, and he’s gonna be a good one. He’s impressed us and coach (Lelan) Rogers in practice, so I think you’ll see him more and more.”
Short-stick is out-of-position for Olexo, though. At a youth club team tryout, Brendan Kelly, former owner of Major League Lacrosse’s Chesapeake Bayhawks, handed Olexo a long pole and told him that if he wanted to play lacrosse, it had to be with a long pole because of his aggressiveness. Olexo stuck with it and eventually became Brian Phipps’ top cover man at Archbishop Spalding High School (Maryland) his junior year.
Archbishop Spalding assistant coach Nick Manis was surprised Olexo was asked to switch positions at Syracuse because of how good he was at his natural position of close defense. But given SU’s large roster, it’s become the norm to see underclassmen switch to the SSDM role to get on the field.
“It’s a credit to him, too, because not everybody can just make that switch quickly,” Manis said. “I knew that he was going to be able to play and have an impact pretty quickly at Syracuse, and it just happened to be by changing positions.”
Olexo was the most competitive kid Manis ever coached, he said, which likely made it easier to switch to a short stick, and play against more physicality when defending one-on-one and going for ground balls. Phipps remembered Olexo’s teammates shied away from him during ground ball drills in high school because of how hard Olexo went for the ball. That’s just Olexo’s nature though, Steve said, and it stems from being the youngest of three brothers, all within five years of each other.
You could tell he was going to become a big time player
Will Dalton, Olexo’s Prostart coach
When his eldest brother, Bijan Olexo, started playing lacrosse, Olexo and his older brother Kian Olexo — who now plays at Virginia — would stay on the sidelines, watching Bijan practice and running around with their own sticks. As they grew older, they battled against each other in the backyard and also academically, sending each other their grades. One year, when Olexo’s schedule wouldn’t allow him to play soccer on a team with kids his age, he played a year up with Kian.
“That’s survival mode,” Steve said. “He had to be competitive if he wanted to play and compete with them.”
Olexo’s body caught up to his aggressive play style the summer before his sophomore year of high school when he was playing for a club team called ProStart, run by Will Dalton and J.P. Dalton. Will said that summer was when Olexo first started getting noticed by college coaches.
He guarded the oppositions’ best player for ProStart, and “he rose to that challenge every time,” Will said. His ability to not only defend one on one but also knock the ball away from his matchup, up the ground ball and move it upfield quickly earned Olexo an all-star game selection at a tournament one summer.
“You could tell he was going to become a big-time player,” Will said.
His success over the summer didn’t translate immediately to high school as Archbishop Spalding plays in one of the toughest conferences in the country, the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association, which includes Calvert Hall (2019 national champions) and Boys Latin (three-time national champions). Phipps kept Olexo on JV his sophomore year. Instead of complaining about being held back, Olexo helped Archbishop Spalding win an MIAA championship at the JV level.
The next year, he moved up to varsity and became the top defender over other players who’d played on varsity before him. Like at ProStart, he started taking on the toughest matchups, including five-star Dominic Pietramala at Boys Latin, who’s committed to North Carolina. And with his knack for ground balls, he came up onto the wings for faceoffs, too. Phipps said Olexo used his hands really well to push people off the goal line, a skill that’s served Olexo well at Syracuse with a short stick, where he can’t rely on stick-checking.
“The way he played was very noticeable because of the physicality he brought,” Manis said.
After Olexo’s first game with a short stick, he reached out to Manis, who played both close defense and SSDM at Maryland and in Major League Lacrosse, for advice. Much of playing SSDM is similar to playing with a long pole in terms of footwork, but attackers dodge from different angles which makes the positioning different, Manis said. Manis said a lot of the position is mental because of the increased workload, and the shorter stick leaves Olexo more exposed to mistakes.
“When you make that shift, it’s going to be frustrating,” Manis said he told Olexo. “You’re going to get beat … just having to deal with that and knowing every time you get beat, you’re getting better.”
Manis was tough on Olexo in high school because of the potential he saw in him. He always responded positively to the feedback, which made coaching Olexo fun, Manis said.
When you make that shift, it’s going to be frustrating
Nick Manis, Olexo’s high school assistant coach
That attitude helped Olexo carve out a role for himself as a freshman in a new position at Syracuse. Against Duke, Olexo was the fourth short-stick that the Orange sent out to allow Dearth, Aviles and Oladunmoye to rest. He did it again in a win at Virginia, that time with Aviles and Oladunmoye injured.
“We’ve thrown them into the fire with very little game experience,” Desko said of Olexo and Syracuse’s other young short-sticks. “They’re playing hard, they’re working hard.”
Olexo will likely be called on again as Syracuse starts its NCAA Tournament run against Georgetown on Saturday. And the Orange will rely on him having learned, like he did throughout high school, from the game time he’s received already.
The post Saam Olexo switches to short-stick in injury-riddled Syracuse defense appeared first on The Daily Orange.