Syracuse passes early tests
This season, ESPN.com is taking you inside the Syracuse lacrosse program. Each month, Orange coaches and players will provide insight into what it takes to become an elite program. For the first installment, coach John Desko and assistant coach Lelan Rogers talk about their approach to preseason exhibition games.
Exhibition games can be a little misleading.
To the outside observer, top-ranked Syracuse's 6-5 loss to No. 10 Hofstra might be a bit concerning. It was, after all, the Orange's first Division I opponent since their stunning loss to Army in last year's NCAA tournament.
For those worried about the close defeat (and a possible 2010 hangover), take solace in the fact that Syracuse turned right around and beat No. 4 Maryland 11-9 in an exhibition game five days later.
For those who brush off exhibition scores as little more than intrasquad scrimmages, you're partly right: Obviously, these games have no bearing on the regular season or the postseason.
But exhibition games are important, both to coaches trying to instill their philosophies in the short time span between the start of practices and the first game, and to the players trying to rid themselves of the rust built up during the layoff between games.
"Our goal for exhibition games is to try to match the pieces of the puzzle together, to find out what it is our team is about," said assistant coach Lelan Rogers.
Syracuse looks to schedule exhibition games against opponents not on its regular-season schedule, according to head coach John Desko, and is limited by the NCAA's rules on the number of days teams are allowed to compete, as well as the availability of other teams to travel to the Carrier Dome.
But as Rogers points out, there are plenty of teams in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic that don't have the luxury of playing in a dome. The escape from the snow -- and the opportunity to measure your team against a perennial power -- is a powerful motivator, and one that allows Syracuse to practice against a nice blend of schools.
This year, in addition to Hofstra and Maryland, whom the Orange could see in postseason play, they also played Division II power Le Moyne and Canisius, whom they beat 10-5 and 10-6, respectively.
"A lot of teams schedule easier matchups so that they can get their confidence up before the season. Some teams schedule tough opponents to try to get a sense of where their team is," explained Rogers. "We like to schedule a bunch of different teams to give our guys different looks."
Instead of game-planning for each opponent, Syracuse's coaching staff instead uses the exhibition games to focus on fundamentals. While the coaches try to go into each matchup with an idea of the other team's personnel, the priority is getting their players experience and evaluating the team's strengths and weaknesses.
The goals for each exhibition vary depending on the personnel. For seniors who know what to expect, the games serve as a warm-up to the season. But for freshmen and inexperienced players, the games can be an eye-opening experience.
"We try to use the games to give the younger players or the players who haven't gotten onto the field much some experience," said Desko. "We'll typically spend part of the game letting our starters get back into a rhythm and develop chemistry, but the second part is getting other guys out there. "
The games serve to answer questions the staff may have about certain players -- ranging from how they handle different matchups to what kind of quickness a player may have.
"As the scrimmages go on, you want your top guys to get more reps together, to work on their chemistry," said Rogers. "It's nice to have three who know each other well, but you also want to make sure you've let different combinations to work together in case there's an injury. You have to be able to adjust."
Overall, the coaching staff was pleased with how the team handled early adversity. "We played good, but not great," said Desko after the Hofstra and Le Moyne scrimmages.
"As a coach, you want perfection. Obviously, you're never going to get that," said Rogers. "There are always things we can work on to get better."
Besides getting experience, the games can serve as a motivator -- and that's when a loss can be better than a win.
"If you win, there's the chance that you get complacent," said Rogers. "Things may not be quite as intense; players may feel they don't need to work as hard. You don't change your routine if you're having success with it. If you get beat, that sticks with guys."
A more motivated Syracuse is a frightening thought for Orange opponents. Sunday's season opener against No. 12 Denver will provide insight into whether the Orange are able to make the necessary adjustments -- and whether we may see Syracuse playing for the national championship on Memorial Day.
Lauren Reynolds is a college sports editor for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.