New York State In-depth

Beat the writers undecided on whether Syracuse can win their first game of the season

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A year after its first season of double-digit losses, Syracuse returns to the field Saturday afternoon to host Vermont for the 2023 season opener.

The Orange missed the NCAA tournament for the first time (in a non-pandemic year) since 2007, when they went 5-8. Sophomore head coach Gary Gait is leading a young SU team expected to be led by Owen Hiltz, a redshirt sophomore attacker, and highly acclaimed freshmen Joey Spallina and Finn Thomson. Syracuse also have a new goaltender in their starting XI in Will Mark, who joined after three seasons at Long Island University.

Vermont finished last season 12-7, went 6-0 in the America East game and lost to top seed Maryland in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The Catamounts won the America East Tournament behind victories over UAlbany and UMBC and won all of their conference games last season by at least seven goals.

Here’s everything you need to know about Vermont ahead of Saturday’s matchup:

series of all time

Syracuse leads 1-0.

They played last time

Then no. Number 7 Syracuse and Vermont faced off in week three of the 2021 season, with Orange leading with a 17-13 win in the first-ever meeting between the two schools. Stephen Rehfuss led SU with six assists and eight points, and Hiltz added five points behind four goals.

SU had some defensive problems that allowed Vermont to have 52 shots — including 34 on target — but goaltender Drake Porter recorded a career-high 21 saves. Catamounts midfielder JJ Levandowski led them with 13 shots and Thomas McConvey had four goals on six shots. However, Porter helped Syracuse escape a possible home disturbance.

“If they’ve gotten their shots, that Drake Porter has 20 saves says something too,” then-head coach John Desko said after the game. “I think he saw the ball very well today.”

The Catamounts Report

Vermont lost its top three scorers last season, including its No. 1, McConvey, who was named America East Offensive Player of the Year and third-team All-American honors last season after a program-record 60 goals . Also gone are attacking veterans Michael McCormack (40 goals, 11 assists in 2022) and Liam Limoges (32 and 11).

A key returnee is David Closterman, a grad student who was first-team all-conference last year and started all 19 games. He finished second in the Catamounts with 65 points and led the team with 36 assists. Closterman had three points at the Dome two years ago – all on assists. He will be joined by senior attack Brock Haley, Vermont’s second-best assists man of last season and another All-America East first-team pick.

UVM have two returning goalkeepers who saw limited use last season. Two-year starter Ryan Cornell graduated after winning America East Defensive Player of the Year (the first time a Catamount has received that award) and scoring 8.91 goals against average, which ranked fourth nationally. George Egan, a junior, conceded 11 goals in five games last season, while Matt Shaffer, a grad student, conceded four goals in 24 minutes in seven games last season.

How Syracuse beats Vermont

Both teams face many unknowns this season considering how much talent they lost after last year. Syracuse lost its top four scorers, including Tucker Dordevic, who scored 47 goals — 13 more than second-best Brendan Curry. Dordevic transferred to Georgetown after the season while Curry and Owen Seebold graduated. Mikey Berkman, who had 14 goals and nine assists last season as a redshirt sophomore, also entered the portal and eventually settled at Rollins College Division-II.

The departures present the Orange with a youthful attack led by Hiltz, returning from last season’s injury, and Spallina and Thomson, two five-star newcomers. Midfielder Jackson Birtwistle, who finished fifth on points with SU last season, also returns. It’s unclear where most of Syracuse’s points will come from, although Hiltz is a good place to start. Gait said each of the younger players will have their chances too.

“You’re going to see a whole new attack this year, and I’m looking forward to that,” Gait said. “There’s no way a guy is going to be great without the others.”

To beat Vermont in the season opener, Syracuse needs strong offense, which they eluded in several games last season, particularly in games against Maryland, Johns Hopkins and Notre Dame when they managed no more than 10 goals. Mark also needs to have strong play at the net, and SU’s defense needs to include Closterman and Haley.

Stats: 48

While SU consistently faces one of the toughest schedules nationwide — including being the fifth-strongest last season — Vermont barely made the top 50 last season. The Catamounts lost at Duke #3 last February, the only ranked team they played against , until losing to Maryland in the NCAA tournament. Syracuse, on the other hand, faced 10 ranked opponents in their 14 games last year. While both teams go into this game unranked, Vermont will be an underdog against the only power conference school on its schedule.

Players to watch: David Closterman, attack, #10

Closterman is entering his fourth year as a starter and was named America East Rookie of the Year in 2019 when he had 25 goals and 12 assists in 14 games. He’s been a good option for Vermont for a number of years and will be the point man for Syracuse, which closes on Saturday.

Contact Konnor: [email protected] | @csmith17_

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