SYRACUSE, NY. — Stephen Rehfuss charged up from X, dangling with his right hand. As he crossed goal-line extended, he leaned in toward the cage, closer to his defender and swung the ball back into the nylon.
It’s a move Rehfuss has done countless times over his three years at Syracuse, but for last season’s team leader in points, 2019 had been a different story. After battling illness earlier in the year, Rehfuss struggled in the first few games, sometimes rotating off the field. His one-handed stick moves more often resulted in turnovers than points.
But on Tuesday night in the Carrier Dome, the junior attack’s first three-goal performance of the season was one of the many moving parts which finally came together at once in a 13-8 win over No. 8 Cornell.
“I got off to a bit of slow start, but all of the other guys stepped up at the start of the season and stuff like that,” Rehfuss said. “We saw some new guys scoring and now just playing loose, continuing to work hard.”
For the last month, Syracuse (7-3) has faltered early in games and relied comebacks to fill the win column. But on Tuesday, the Orange tied together the spurts it had shown in weeks prior. Against Cornell (7-4), Syracuse jumped out to an early 3-0 lead and kept pressuring. Coach John Desko’s team fired 12 more shots on goal, won 16 more groundballs and went 17-of-25 from the face-off X. Seven scorers contributed to the first eight goals and the Orange held the nation’s second highest scoring offense to its lowest scoring total of the year in what Desko said was the Orange’s most holistic win of 2019.
“We were more consistent throughout the game,” Desko said. “I thought the guys listened to the gameplan and the defense was pretty stingy.”
Desko has expressed repeatedly that his team needed cut down on turnovers. He’d often reference the loss at Notre Dame, a game which Syracuse’s couldn’t overcome 14 first half turnovers. He’s often said the team needs to slow down, even with the shot clock, and allow every player a touch. After the game, he chuckled at his team’s offensive performance, noting it’s the exact tactic that has been used against Syracuse’s offense for years.
The Orange wanted Cornell’s offense to watch as much as possible. Jacob Phaup (11-of-18) and Danny Varrello (6-of-6) granted SU consistent possessions from the face-off X. When the Big Red did have the ball, Syracuse pressed out.
Early in the first quarter, a ball bounced deep into the Syracuse zone, forcing an early glimpse at the matchup many anticipated prior to the game. One of the nation’s top attackmen, Jeff Teat, and one of the nations top cover defenders, Nick Mellen, battled for the groundball. Mellen slipped to the ground but eventually won the body position well enough for a teammate to scoop the loose ball.
Mellen challenged Teat often, preventing him from dodging too far to his strong left hand and contesting each throw with a check to the hands. Syracuse defenders followed suit, with Tyson Bomberry tapping Clarke Petterson’s hands before swinging his stick up around the attack’s head to spring the ball loose. Later in the second quarter, longstick midfielder Jared Fernandez pressed down on a Cornell attackman to strip the ball from a hanging stick.
“They couldn’t really find any gaps or openings,” Mellen said. “I thought we were just suffocating them the whole game.”
On the offensive end, Syracuse held its own in keeping the ball out of Cornell’s hands. Cornell head coach Peter Milliman said Syracuse’s offense was more patient than it looked on film. The offense ran through the attack, something it’s tried but not always succeeded at this season. Rehfuss (3G), Bradley Voigt (3G) and Nate Solomon (2G) combined for more than half of the team’s goals.
The offense worked the way it’s intended to as possessions wore on and open shots were created. On Syracuse’s lone man-up goal, Voigt caught the ball on the wing with time and space for a shot and score. Midfielder Brendan Curry (2G, 1A), who often creates for himself with speed, also scored on spot shots.
And for once, it wasn’t during a comeback. Against a Top 10 team, the Orange’s top scorers, defenders and specialist all clicked. It was the moment Syracuse has been waiting for, after a month-long stretch of inconsistent play, the Orange assembled it’s most complete performance to date.
“Sometimes it’s not what you’d anticipate at the beginning of the season,” Milliman said. “But they’ve always developed their guy. They’re very fundamental and sometimes teams just take on a different personality, a different life. And this one I think you saw a really good version of that.”