Syracuse midfielder Brendan Curry, defensive coordinator Dave Pietramala, head coach Gary Gait and defenseman Brett Kennedy pose for a portrait at Manley Field House in October.

In the Presence of Legends: Gait, Petro and the Syracuse Reformation

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — This mid-October scene was almost impossible to picture seven months ago, let alone a year. Inside the Ensley Athletic Center, Gary Gait calmly coaches the Syracuse men’s lacrosse team’s offense to fine-tune its spacing. On the other side of the field, Dave Pietramala directs a ground ball drill. His instructions and critiques echo off the gleaming facility’s 65-foot roof.

Both lacrosse legends sport a block orange “S” on their shirts. The two former competitors, considered the greatest of all time at their respective positions, are now on the same side working toward a common goal.

Return Syracuse men’s lacrosse to its once lofty status.

“I’m with the greatest player ever to play the game,” Pietramala says after practice while sitting in the lobby of Ensley. “The importance that he holds here is immeasurable.”

“This year we’ll do a lot of things that have never been seen before.”

— Brendan Curry

SYRACUSE ATHLETIC DIRECTOR JOHN WILDHACK ECHOED THAT BELIEF when he introduced Gait as the fifth head coach in the program’s 107-year history June 7. “He’s the Michael Jordan of lacrosse,” Wildhack said.

The press conference came just two days after a similar assembly for John Desko’s retirement and 11 days after Gait led the Syracuse women’s lacrosse team to the NCAA championship game for the third time in his 14-year tenure.

Another shockwave rippled through the Finger Lakes seven days later when the university announced that Pietramala, who was forced out at Johns Hopkins in April 2020 after guiding his alma mater to a 207-93 record and two NCAA titles in 20 years, would join Gait’s staff as Syracuse’s defensive coordinator. Nine days after that, the university tabbed Kayla Treanor — a four-time All-American for the Orange who weeks earlier was on the opposite sideline from Gait celebrating a national championship as Boston College’s associate head coach — to take over the women’s team.

In a matter of 18 days, Syracuse, the school that spends more on lacrosse than any other and holds the sport in the kind of esteem normally reserved for football and basketball, had executed a total transformation. At a place where coaches define eras, this fall felt like a time of transition. You didn’t even need to look at the leaves that had started to take on an orange hue despite the summer-like temps peaking in the mid-80s.

“The weather’s always like this,” Syracuse men’s lacrosse director of operations Roy Simmons III says with a chuckle when greeting a visitor at practice at Wohl Field, a short walk from the bronze statues of his father and grandfather. The dates of their coaching reigns — 1931 to 1998 — on the base are almost as impressive as their 543 combined wins. Simmons Jr. accounted for 290 of those. He led the Orange from 1971-1998 and won six NCAA championships.


Former rivals as Hall of Fame players at Johns Hopkins and Syracuse, respectively, Pietramala and Gait have teamed up as coaches at Syracuse

The breadth of Syracuse’s vaunted past is best encapsulated inside the lobby of Manley Field House. There’s enough hardware to fill a Home Depot and an elaborate 6-by-36 foot mural on the wall. It chronicles Gait’s predecessors’ tenures above a timeline where championships are symbolized by gold medals. There are a lot of them — 16 in all, including five won by Desko’s teams in the 2000s. The display cuts off at 2010. Syracuse has not won an NCAA title since 2009. The team that once made 22 straight trips to championship weekend has not been back since 2013.

Gait’s new corner office three flights up inside the Roy Simmons Sr. Coaches Complex, one floor above his previous one, tells the story of a program at the intersection of its celebrated history and its plans to get back there. When Gait moved from his old home in Fayetteville to an apartment in Syracuse this fall, memories resurfaced. He recently sent 26 boxes to Paul, his identical twin brother and fellow Syracuse great, to be used at the new Gait Lacrosse headquarters. The “truckload of artifacts” had been sitting in Gary’s basement for the past six years after his mother pulled together everything he and Paul wore and won during their early playing days in Victoria, British Columbia. Then there’s the container of retro t-shirts from Syracuse, NLL and MLL teams he found in his closet. “The problem is, how long do you keep it before you actually do something with it?” Gait asks, almost to himself.

Gait has a box filled with mementos he’s set aside to bring to the office. One shelf in the display behind his desk still holds a few trophies from Desko’s 46 years at Syracuse as a player and coach, in which he was part of a staggering 529 victories. Pictures are on the way too, Gait says, to hang on the white walls. For now, they remain blank like a dorm room on move-in day.

“It’s a clean slate,” Gait says, surveying his surroundings. “That’s for sure.”

BRETT KENNEDY HAS BEEN AT SYRACUSE FOR OVER HALF A DECADE. For the past month the sixth-year senior has felt more like a freshman. “We basically started at square one,” he says. “With a whole new staff, you have to earn everything back.”

Gait and Pietramala present a study in contrasts. Gait wears a whistle around the collar of his navy blue polo, but never seems to use it. His instructions fade out of earshot for those standing more than 10 feet away. Not Pietramala’s. “Louder here, louder there,” he barks.

Their differing preferences extend to the practice setting. “It’s always 75 and sunny in Ensley,” the Orange like to say. Today, it feels more like a pressure cooker. “I like it,” Pietramala says, because it’s easier to film practice.

“I’d like to think we have the same goals, expectations, standards and aspirations,” he adds about Gait, who’d rather practice outside. “We communicate them differently.”

Their dynamic reminds others around the program and even Gait himself of the connection between Roy Simmons Jr. and Desko. “You don’t necessarily want people that are exactly the same,” Gait says. “I jumped at the chance to get Coach Petro because I knew how intense he was and I knew the type of person he was. He’s a freaking workaholic.”

NCAA faceoff king TD Ierlan also joined Gait’s staff as the team’s volunteer assistant. Still, it’s not a complete overhaul. Pat March, who Gait called a “great offensive mind,” stayed on as the offensive coordinator. Roy Simmons III, who came up to the podium to hug Desko during his farewell press conference, decided to remain for at least another year. His presence continues a 91-year legacy where at least one member of his family has been on the Orange staff.

Pietramala gauges the improvement of the defense in part through their feedback. He looks reinvigorated in grey and orange. He wants to be a head coach again, but he’s in no hurry. He wakes up at 4:30 a.m. every weekday morning to arrive early and oversee the Orange’s 6 a.m. lifts. He’s lost 64 pounds from when he was at Hopkins, but says he has a long way to go.

On this afternoon, Pietramala looks fully in his element. He presides over the start of practice by himself and runs a team-wide ground ball drill with Gait running late from finalizing his move and March attending to a family matter.

“Stop looking at me! Did they teach you to cheat in Oregon?” Pietramala chides senior midfielder Tucker Dordevic before tossing out a ball. “Fix your elbow pad, get back in there and play,” he shouts at another player.

For a Syracuse defense that last spring surrendered 18 or more goals in five games for the first time since 1974, the priorities this fall are communication and discipline. Or as Pietramala tells the unit several times, “Doing what’s right, when it’s right, all the time.”

“That is not a lacrosse thing,” he clarifies after practice about the message. “That is a life thing. Our job is to prepare these guys for life. The beauty of being here is I am at a place working with a guy [Gait] and I don’t feel like I work for him. I feel like he’s asked me to partner with him. I’m with a guy whose values and morals are in line with mine.”

Pietramala’s defense faces frequent behind-the-back shots and underhand passes. Dordevic threads a bounce pass to Owen Hiltz cutting to the crease for a goal. Under Gait’s watch, creativity is not only encouraged. It’s practiced.

“I want to learn who can do it,” he explains. “I’m not necessarily there to change people and make them do it. I just want to know who has the skill set, so that when we coach we can set things up and give them options.”

He wants to create a “multi-dimensional” and “freelance” type of offense with March in which the players can make the decisions.

“He’s adding a flair to our game that we’ve never played with,” senior midfielder Brendan Curry says. “This year we’ll do a lot of things that have never been seen before.”

The Orange do not have to look far for inspiration. Inside the entrance of the Roy Simmons Sr. Coaches Complex sits a bronze sculpture of their head coach’s most iconic move: the Air Gait. A replica of the often replicated but rarely duplicated goal resides at the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame at USA Lacrosse in Sparks, Maryland. On a nearby wall, Gait and Pietramala’s plaques rest less than three feet apart.

Midway through practice, Gait hops into a shooting a drill. He casually flicks behind-the-back passes and moves with a shuffling stride. His stick — a Gait GC3 with Flex Mesh on a prototype shaft — never leaves his left hand. An image of Gait mid-shot with his tongue out will go viral on social media in the coming days. Goat emojis figure prominently in the comments. On this afternoon, he turns heads with his high heat. Afterward, he’s more likely to mention the several shots that sailed wide or the high bouncer that Harrison Thompson turned away.

“It wasn’t pretty,” Gait says of his performance with a sigh. “It’s been a while.”

This article appears in the December edition of USA Lacrosse Magazine.

NEXT TO THE AIR GAIT REPLICA IN THE HALL OF FAME is an orange No. 22 Syracuse jersey Charlie Lockwood wore in 1994. The number took on a life of its own after Gait graduated. He wore 38 as a freshman in 1987, then 22 his final three seasons, during which Syracuse won three straight NCAA titles and Gait took home national player of the year honors twice. (Pietramala, the daring defenseman with a jet black mullet who memorably dueled Gait in the 1989 final, interrupted his reign that year.)

“Coach Simmons initially presented it as a challenge,” Gait says of the jersey lineage that includes all three Powell brothers. “I dare you to take 22 and fill the shoes.”

While No. 22’s influence within the program and lacrosse in general is well known, Gait’s original reason for wearing it has been less chronicled.

Back in British Columbia, John Crowther was a star player that lacked ego but could light up a room. “He was the nicest guy and a great player,” Gait says. The MVP of the 1983 Mann Cup with Victoria Payless (now Shamrocks), Crowther, who wore 22, received a full scholarship to play at Rutgers. He stayed home after his freshman year in part to be with his girlfriend, Joan Cook, a physical education teacher who came to Canada in 1969 from her native Jamaica. 

Gait and Crowther practiced together on Thursday, Sept. 27, 1984, preparing for the Canadian championship. “I just sat back on Thursday and watched the two best young lacrosse players in Canada,” the head coach of Victoria Payless told a reporter from the Times Colonist newspaper. 

In the early morning hours of Sept. 28, Crowther and Cook were shot to death by Derek Russell, a one-time boyfriend of Cook. 

Crowther was 22 years old.

“When I put that back on, I feel like I’m representing him and all the people back in British Columbia,” Gait says. “Now, it’s become a Syracuse thing. It’s become a thing where you are wearing it for the university and it means something to wear it for the university, so that’s certainly a different mindset than the one I had.”

Most Syracuse lacrosse supporters would prefer to forget the most recent No. 22. Domestic violence accusations against star attackman Chase Scanlan last spring shrouded in scandal a season that culminated in a blowout loss to Georgetown in the NCAA tournament. Syracuse police later arrested Scanlan on criminal mischief charges.

Amid the upheaval, however, the team demonstrated leadership, first by refusing to practice if Scanlan was on the same field and then through their support of the One Love Foundation. The national non-profit organization with the goal of ending relationship abuse was created in 2010 after Virginia women’s lacrosse player Yeardley Love was murdered by her ex-boyfriend George Huguely, a member of UVA men’s lacrosse team.

“Not knowing any of these guys myself, these things are not easy to do, and I found it courageous,” One Love CEO Katie Hood told about the Orange men’s lacrosse team’s efforts. They included statements on Instagram to raise awareness and show support for all victims of domestic violence and abuse. Several players drew the One Love logo on athletic tape affixed to their chinstraps for their regular season finale against Robert Morris. Dordevic wrote Love’s initials on his left calf in eye black. At practice this fall, it was easy to spot the number of players wearing light blue One Love wristbands.

The Scanlan saga precipitated Desko’s retirement. Adding to the program’s grief this year were the shocking deaths of two iconic players. Rob Kavovit, 45, died by suicide at his home in Florida on March 16. John Zulberti, 54, accidentally drowned in an Atlanta pool Aug. 2. The squads for the Orange’s alumni game this fall were named “Team 15 for Life” and “Team Z,” respectively, in their honor.

If ever Syracuse needed a blank slate, it was now. At his introductory press conference, Gait said he wanted to “create a real buzz around the way Syracuse plays again” and foster “a style of play that will bring back 20,000 in the Dome to come watch us play.” Everyone prefers that the narrative about Syracuse lacrosse return to the product on the field.

After practice concludes, the team forms a semicircle around Gait at midfield. Pietramala stands slightly off to the left. Gait praises the players’ work ethic and says how excited he is to see how they’ve worked together in the past month. The topic then turns to leadership. One by one, Gait announces the team’s captains for the 2022 season — Curry, Kennedy, Dordevic and senior attackman Owen Seebold— along with a brief sentence or two of praise about how they earned the respect of their teammates through their actions.

But four captains alone cannot carry a team to championship weekend, both coaches say.

“What’s the difference between cutting and cutting hard?” Pietramala asks before answering his own question. “It’s the difference between playing on Memorial Day weekend or watching from the stands. I’ve already bought enough [expletive] tickets.”

Details matter. Like being on time to a morning lift or keeping the locker room clean. Pietramala cites both as areas to address before he references an article he emailed the team this morning. It’s about servant leadership. In other words, “You are third.” By extension, Pietramala says, you’re only as good as the people around you.

He assigns extra homework: Learn the names of the entire support staff from trainers to student managers.

“We need the support of everyone around us,” he says.

Before Pietramala heads back to his office to break down the film from practice, he offers the players a final imperative that he later explains aligns with Gait’s vision.

“Set a different standard than the people that came before you,” Pietramala says.

The team replies in unison. “Yes sir!”