When Stars Align: Syracuse, Kayla Treanor Built to Win Now

After Kayla Treanor outlined the practice plan for the Syracuse women’s lacrosse team a little before noon on a Wednesday back in October, her focus turned to time.

“This is one of our most important practices,” said Treanor, standing inside the Ensley Athletic Center. “We’re building off everything we worked on in the fall. Every minute should count today.”

The outlook from the first-year head coach doesn’t seem out of place once you get a sense of the place. A larger than life-sized picture of Treanor looms behind a pane of glass and the 2010 Big East Women’s Lacrosse Runner Up trophy on the ground floor of the Roy Simmons Sr. Coaches Center. Her eyes and stick up are up, looking to feed. An entire row of NCAA semifinalist and second-place trophies rest on the opposite wall.

Back in late June, Treanor, the Orange’s all-time leading goal scorer, a four-time All-American and three-time IWLCA Attacker of the Year, succeeded Gary Gait as the third head coach in Syracuse women’s lacrosse history. The two stood on opposite ends of the 50-yard line at Towson’s Johnny Unitas Stadium less than a month earlier. Treanor, then the associate head coach of Boston College where she worked since 2017, helped the Eagles capture its elusive first national championship in its fourth consecutive title game appearance.

As of late December, Treanor had yet to receive the golf ball-sized bling the Eagles earned for the accomplishment. She didn’t seem worried. Her sights are already set on engineering a similar breakthrough at her alma mater.

“When it came down to it, I think they got the right one in Kayla,” said Gait, who led the Orange to eight final fours and three NCAA championship game appearances in 12 seasons before switching offices last summer to take over the Syracuse men’s lacrosse program. “I thought she was the one that had the level of experience that would help this program win its first national championship.”

Treanor, 28, is the youngest head coach in the ACC and one of the youngest head coaches in NCAA Division I women’s lacrosse, period. Syracuse athletic director John Wildhack anticipated reporters would bring that up at her introductory press conference. He pulled out a piece of paper and read from it a list of college basketball legends who got their first shot as a head coach at similarly early ages — including Pat Summit (23), Tara VanDerveer (25) and Mike Krzyzewski (27).

“So, I think your question is answered,” Wildhack said. “Not a concern at all.”

Treanor herself did not flinch when asked if she felt prepared to coach at an institution that takes lacrosse as seriously as Syracuse does. “That’s a question I’ve gotten quite a bit,” she said. “I am ready.”

“When it came down to it, I think they got the right one in Kayla.”

— Gary Gait

On this afternoon, it was easy to understand why there’s a healthy optimism Treanor will build upon the program’s legacy of success she first helped establish as a player. The song “So Close,” by the musical duo NOTD blared from the speakers as her team worked through a “Star” passing drill.

The Orange’s star power burns brighter than the lights inside Ensley. The team returns 93 percent of its offensive production from 2021, according to Lacrosse Reference, by far the most in the stacked Atlantic Coast Conference. The roster features five preseason USA Lacrosse Magazine All-Americans, tied with Boston College for the second-most of any team, and includes first-team selections Emily Hawryschuk and Sarah Cooper.

“Everyone wants to work hard to get back to where we were,” said Meaghan Tyrrell, a second-team preseason All-American who registered 112 points last spring — the third-most in program history. “It’s something you want to get back to to finish.”

Star midfielder and fellow second-team All-American Sam Swart was more blunt. “I didn’t come back to lose for a fifth year,” she said.

Syracuse’s return to the NCAA title game for the first time since Treanor’s senior season in 2016 occurred without two of its biggest stars. Hawryschuk and Megan Carney combined for 45 percent of the team’s scoring in the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign. Both were felled by ACL tears last spring. Both are back. It’s Hawryschuk’s sixth year. She didn’t seem hampered by the brace on her right knee while dodging on the surface with the same composition as the Carrier Dome’s floor. Carney wore sweatpants and manned the AUX chord during warm-ups. She underwent surgery four months ago to the date.

“If you see something,” Treanor suggested to Carney after she shouted some advice to a teammate during a drill early on. Taking her coach's cue, Carney walked over to provide a more detailed explanation.

“I’m trying to get them more and more to use their voices,” Treanor said recently of Carney and the team’s upperclassmen. “They’re really smart players, and I want them to practice that leadership, but also sharing their knowledge with other people … The more they have ownership, the better it will be.”

Treanor retained Caitlin Defliese, the architect of the Orange defense that allowed only 9.95 goals per game in 2021 and ranked No. 15 nationally. She also brought on Kenzie Kent, a member of Boston College’s “Big Three” that advanced to three consecutive national ghampionship games.

Rarely did a rep go without some form of instruction from the coaching staff. Treanor stayed in a perpetual state of motion. She toggled between teaching the intricacies of pick plays with Emma Ward — who will miss this season with a lower leg injury, as was announced in January — and freshman Payton Rowley to retrieving a whiteboard to diagram an offensive pattern. Each piece of advice she offered seemed to answer not just how but why. At one point during a 2-v-1 drill from the wings, all three coaches offered individual pointers.

Two nights later and after a 350-mile drive south, Treanor suited up for the U.S. national team with which she won a World Championship in 2017. After she dished a cross-crease assist to Charlotte North during the U.S.’s 19-3 win over Canada at Fall Classic, she pulled North aside. In a matter of seconds, Treanor then broke down the play and explained where to look for openings in the defense.

“She has one of the best minds in the game,” said North, the 2021 Tewaaraton Award winner who returned to Boston College for a fifth year. “Whether she’s in the middle of playing or on the sidelines, it’s incredible to see her spreading her knowledge of the game and her creativity, which is so unique.

“She knows the game better than anyone and cares about her players on a really deep level … She’s really a once in a lifetime coach.”

Treanor inspired a generation to reconfigure what was possible on the field through her creative flair. Swart could hardly contain her excitement when the Orange found out Treanor would become their new head coach. “Oh, my dreams are coming true,” she thought. “She’s my idol. I was definitely fangirling for a moment.”

“She was literally a superstar in my eyes,” added Tyrrell, who said Treanor’s career was a driving factor in her committing to Syracuse. “That was who I wanted to be.”

Tyrrell noted that Treanor’s experience as one of the greatest players of all time made it easy to take all her teachings to heart. “She obviously knows what she’s talking about,” Tyrrell said. “If you don’t listen [to her], you are kind of a fool.”

As if on command after Treanor’s instruction during practice at Ensley, Ward ran off a pick on the left-wing then threaded a pass through two defenders to Emma Tyrrell, who finished in tight.

“You see how simple that is?” Treanor asked the rest of the team about the “Emma to Emma” connection. “It should be that simple all the time.”

“They teach us when something is going wrong instead of just letting it go,” reserve attacker Kenzie Harris said of the coaching staff. “Every day we’ve learned something. I don’t think a lot of teams can say that.”


Meaghan Tyrrell was a second-team preseason All-American who registered 112 points last spring.

That extends beyond lacrosse. Treanor has kept some fall traditions that Gait established, like playing box lacrosse in full pads. She’s introduced others, like a pre-practice speech each day by one team member. A coach’s kid, Treanor believes that the greatest part about the occupation is the relationships you get to build.

“There’s no other job quite like it where you get to know people so well,” she said.

Her main emphasis this fall was establishing chemistry. The first of the two major goals she outlined at her introductory press conference was that the student-athletes under her watch love their experience at the school. Winning a national championship was the second.

Before practice commenced inside Ensley, the music stopped as the Orange gathered around McKenzie Olsen. The freshman from Palos Verdes (Calif.) then described how she tore her ACL while training at a facility in Orange County this summer. The injury occurred the same day the Orange held its first team-wide Zoom with Treanor. Olsen explained that she hadn’t realized how bound her identity was to the sport until she got hurt. She considered not even making the cross-country trip. The encouragement of teammates helped her persevere.

“I never knew what a family Syracuse lacrosse was until coming here,” Olsen said.

“I did not cry,” she added proudly before several teammates embraced her.

“Seeing people from a different point of view and getting to know each other on a more personal level is going to make us a better team,” said Swart.

That bond was most visible during the Orange’s final team activity of the semester. After a team dinner and a Secret Santa gift swap, Harris, a gifted singer-songwriter, performed for the first time in front of the team at Benjamin’s On Franklin in Downtown Syracuse. Treanor and Kent purchased the necessary equipment at a local Guitar Center to help make the opportunity possible.

“Kayla was amazing and went out of her way to set that up,” said Nancy Pavlock Swanson, Harris’s mother. “I don’t know why other than she’s just an awesome person.”

That night, the entire team used their voices in a full-throated rendition of the chorus in Harris’s song “Sober.” Treanor did, too, despite her own critical self-assessment of her singing prowess. On the last weekend in May and perhaps with a little encouragement, she hopes to lead the Orange in another anthem.

“We Are the Champions,” has a certain ring to it.