Commentary

Syracuse seniors take long, strange trip to championship

Originally Published: May 26, 2008
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- On the eve of the biggest game of his life, Kyle Guadagnolo did something he'd never done before.

The Syracuse senior found a quiet corner and said a prayer.

He needed his brother's help, and prayer was the only way to reach him.

On May 20, just days before Guadagnolo and his younger brother Tom were to play in the lacrosse Final Four, their brother Aaron was killed in a motorcycle accident near the family's New York home.

"I don't think I've ever prayed before in my life, but I just asked him to watch over me, my brother and my teammates," Guadagnolo said. "I think he did."

It is too trite to say that Guadagnolo's prayer was answered. Aaron is still gone, his family still reeling.

But Monday, as the final seconds were ticking down on Syracuse's 10th NCAA lacrosse championship, a 13-10 win over Johns Hopkins nearly in the books, Kyle Guadagnolo was at least able to enjoy something unexpected.

He smiled an ear-to-ear grin.

"Those last five seconds, I was just looking around watching all of my teammates, looking up at the scoreboard, and I knew my brother was watching," Guadagnolo said. "To be able to do this now, I can't even describe it."

Guadagnolo wasn't alone. The Orange's win was as much a catharsis as a celebration, an overdue burst of joy that this particular senior class has endured much to taste. The Class of '08 has endured hackneyed sports clichés and far more personal and painful tragedies en route to that little piece of NCAA hardware. There have been doubters and doubts, long hard looks in the mirror and moments when they wondered if it would ever happen for them.

Until Saturday afternoon, the Syracuse seniors were on track to become the first class since 1981 not to play for a national championship, and until a sun-splashed Monday, the first not to win a title since 1999.

In place of glory, this class owned marks of ignominy. As freshmen in 2005, they were part of the first Syracuse team not to play in the Final Four; as juniors in 2007, they were members of a 5-8 squad that became the first to fail to qualify for the NCAA tournament since 1982.

It all changed in a whirlwind 72 hours when the Orange took a nail-biting double-overtime win against Virginia and a far more overwhelming decision against Hopkins, the defending national champions.

[+] EnlargeDanny Brennan
AP Photo/Winslow TownsonDanny Brennan is among the senior leaders who turned the Orange around.

"There's a great tradition here," said senior Mike Leveille, who was named the tournament's most outstanding player. "When you're recruited to Syracuse, you're recruited to win national championships. We broke a couple of streaks here, not the kind you want to, and we went through some tough times, but none of that means anything now."

The old adage says adversity makes you stronger. It usually sounds more like an apologist's way to make a person feel better, but the Orange would contend there is something in the beat-up cliché.

So many of the seniors endured tragedy and trials that, as ugly as that 5-8 record was last year, as difficult as it was to watch the NCAA tournament play on without them, they had the great gift of perspective.

• Steven Brooks lost his mother to lung cancer when he was in high school. She was gone in months. Brooks came to Syracuse out of Illinois by way of a Maine prep school, not exactly burning the traditional path in the sport. He left the field with a goal, two assists, All-American honors and a happy-go-lucky attitude that borders on goofy still intact.

"I think it's all sinking in," Brooks said in a near-empty Syracuse locker room, eye black still fresh, stick still rattling around in his hand. "I heard the guys all screaming, 'We did it! We won a national championship!' But I don't know. It might take until tomorrow for me to realize it."

• Danny Brennan won 13 of 26 faceoffs on Monday, setting the tone for Syracuse's offensive dominance. Two years ago he was ruled academically ineligible and had to sit on the sidelines and watch his team play on without him.

"It was the hardest year of my life," Brennan said. "But in that year, I grew up tremendously. I talked with the coaches, my family, my academic adviser and basically realized I had to get my stuff together. I did, and now here we are."

• Leveille had surgery before his junior year to repair a sports hernia. Though he won't cite the injury and its recovery, his production dipped precipitously, a 13-point nosedive between his sophomore and junior seasons. Then last summer he broke his thumb, and doctors limited his workouts until fall.

This weekend he scored six goals and assisted on four others to earn MOP honors.

"Injuries are part of the game," he said. "But I won't say I wasn't frustrated."

• And then there was the 2007 season, a year that would challenge even the heartiest lacrosse souls. The Orange were a chemistry experiment done by a mad scientist, a mix of personalities gone severely awry. Their defense was ranked 48th (out of 57 teams) in the country, their offense not nearly good enough to mask the other half of the team's mistakes.

When the season ended, John Desko did something straight out of the coaching handbook's top 10 no-no list: He chucked everything.

In a profession governed by control freaks who like nothing less than change and nothing more than order, Desko revamped his entire coaching staff. He moved Roy Simmons III to offense after nine years of monitoring the defense; he turned part-time assistant Lelan Rogers into a full-time helper and threw him at the defense.

And with Desko's consent, those two 180'd their ends of the field. Simmons took the shackles off the offense, opening up the game to more creativity and freedom while Rogers preached discipline on defense.

[+] EnlargeSyracuse Lacrosse
AP Photo/Winslow TownsonSyracuse rode freshman goalie John Galloway all the way to an NCAA championship.

"It was about refocusing," Desko said. "We've all been coaching a long time, and if you look at our bios, we've all coached different parts of the game at different times of our career. I think the change was good for all of us. When you change completely, you have to jump into it and go back to the basics."

Desko's risky moves got things headed in the right direction. The senior class kept everyone on track. They preached family and focus, cajoling and downright insisting that the underclassmen live up to what Syracuse lacrosse was meant to be about.

After losing to Virginia in overtime in the regular season, the Orange reeled off 11 consecutive victories (the streak inexplicably stopped by a 12-11 nonleague loss to Colgate) to roll into the tournament.

And just when it seemed all the bad times were over, Guadagnolo heard about his brother. The Guadagnolos were big in organizing team functions and tailgates, so the loss hit the entire team particularly hard.

But there was no chance Kyle and Tom wouldn't play. And so with father Tom sitting in the stands, they suited up, riding the most difficult roller coaster of emotions.

"It all just means a lot," Kyle Guadagnolo said simply.

The Orange turned a 4-2 first-quarter deficit into a 6-5 halftime advantage, and Desko said then he could sense "they weren't going to be denied."

But Hopkins is hardly a team that fades easily into the backdrop. Second now to Syracuse with nine national titles (although Syracuse's 1990 championship was vacated because of an ineligible player), the Blue Jays rode Paul Rabil's goal-scoring back into the game. Rabil notched his fourth of what would be six goals with 4:17 left in the third to make it a painfully close 9-8.

The Orange countered with four unanswered goals.

Seniors scored two of them and assisted on the other two.

"The last two minutes were the longest two minutes of my life," Guadagnolo said. "Every time I looked up, it was like only five seconds went off the clock. It was awful. But when it was over, I just saw everyone throwing their stuff around. It was amazing. I'm pretty sure my brother enjoyed it."

Dana O'Neil covers college sports for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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