FOUR YEARS ago Mike Leveille went to Syracuse to be part of a program that had won eight NCAA titles in 17 seasons and was the defending national champion. To this point, he has missed out on that sort of success. After an upset loss in the first round of the 2005 NCAA tournament and a semifinal defeat the next year, the Orange last season stumbled to their first losing record (5--8) since 1975 and failed to reach the tournament for the first time since '82. Then last fall, when one preseason publication ranked the team 11th, the indignity became too much for Leveille. As one of three senior captains, he lit into his teammates at a players-only meeting in December, challenging their work ethic and their pride. "Mike doesn't get upset too often," says senior defenseman Evan Brady. "Everybody took notice."
Two months later the Orange started their run back to national prominence, with Leveille leading the charge on the field as well. They were 12--1, had a 10-game winning streak and were ranked No. 2 in the nation behind Duke heading into last Saturday's game at Colgate. Leveille scored twice, upping his team-high total to 38 goals, but the Patriot League--champion Raiders withstood a late Syracuse rally to prevail 12--11. Both Orange losses were by one goal. "The biggest difference is their attitude," Johns Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala says of Syracuse, which beat Hopkins 14--13 in overtime on March 15. "It's the little things. They're winning 59 percent of their face-offs."
The Orange also made a big turnaround on defense: After allowing 11.38 goals per game a year ago, ranking 49th out of 58 Division I programs, they're giving up 7.57 (10th best) entering the NCAA tournament. That's attributable to the play of defensive midfielders John Carrozza (back after being suspended for 10 games in 2007 for an off-campus incident) and Sean McGonigle; a defensive scheme that emphasizes execution and aggressiveness over multiple sets; and the arrival of goalie John Galloway. "Had we made the playoffs [last year], we might not have changed too much," says coach John Desko. "It gave us new perspective. Everybody came in with eyes and ears wide open."
Galloway, a 5'11", 175-pound freshman, won a three-man battle for the starting job in preseason practice and has even improved the offense; his crisp, accurate outlet passes have opened up a Syracuse fast break that suffered last year.
For Leveille, though, the payoff must come on Memorial Day weekend, at the Final Four in Foxborough, Mass. "We learned a lot from last year," he says. "We're not taking anything for granted."
STEVE PARKER/SU ATHLETIC COMMUNICATIONS
WINDING UP Steven Brooks is one of three Orange with more than 20 goals.