Men's Lacrosse

Nick Mellen’s likely absence leaves Syracuse leaning heavily on unproven defenders

Liam Sheehan | Staff Photographer

Sophomore defender Nick Mellen would be the only returning starter from last year's unit, but he'll likely miss the first game while recovering from offseason shoulder surgery.

An already young Syracuse team appears like it’ll be even more inexperienced on opening night. Not only will the Orange need to replace two key, graduated defenders, but Nick Mellen, the only holdover from last season’s defensive starting line, has yet to be cleared to play.

The sophomore had offseason surgery after tearing his right shoulder labrum against Duke last season and missed all of fall ball. The West Genesee (New York) High School graduate had begun running, working out and stickhandling as of Feb. 2 but had not participated in a contact practice as of Feb. 4. Despite optimism from Mellen and SU head coach John Desko throughout the preseason, the speedy-return narrative has loosened lately.

“He’s been working out,” Desko said on Feb. 2, “but not good to go yet. Maybe I was a little wishful thinking before.”

Losing Mellen means a hole opens for SU’s top longpole. The 5-foot-9, 178-pound defender has difficulty bodying up taller attacks, but his speed and horizontal quickness helped him finish third on the team in groundballs (38) and tied for second in caused turnovers (14).

Desko re-upped on his doubt after Saturday’s scrimmage against Harvard that Mellen will be ready to go on Saturday at 4 p.m. when the No. 6 Orange begins its season against Siena. The veteran may not have provided a measurable difference this weekend anyway: Each of SU’s three wins over Siena in the last five seasons has come by at least 12 goals.

Mellen’s absence means the Orange will feature a fully fresh-faced starting defensive line of which the top two options put together have fewer appearances than Mellen did his freshman year alone. The only underclassman selected to the All-Atlantic Coast Conference preseason team could be missed more against bigger, faster opponents, like star attack Connor Fields on No. 13 Albany the following week.

“He’ll be very much needed,” Desko said. “In a lot of games last year, he covered the top attackman. … He’s got an ability to cover a real quick guy, and there are plenty of those out there this year.”

For now, those responsibilities fall to an unproven group including sophomore Tyson Bomberry and redshirt sophomore Marcus Cunningham. In a combined 14 career appearances and one start, the pair has three groundballs and two caused turnovers.

The two are tasked with spearheading a group, until Mellen returns, to fill in the hole left by graduated seniors Jay McDermott and Brandon Mullins. The former led the team with 31 caused turnovers — more than double the second-best mark — and the latter scooped up 41 groundballs, best on the team save for FOGO Ben Williams.

The Mellen-Mullins-McDermott D-line accounted for 40 percent of the team’s total caused turnovers last season and kick-started a late-season, six-game winning streak of allowing 6.5 goals per game en route to an ACC tournament championship.

“I’ve seen (Mellen) working out a lot and playing wall ball,” redshirt junior midfielder Matt Lane said. “He’s pretty close to go. He’s hungry to get out there.”

Cunningham served as the fourth man for last year’s defensive unit and Desko praised Bomberry’s “terrific” offseason while stressing he needed more game experience. The third spot looks like it’s up for grabs based on Desko’s comments and his lineups in scrimmages against Hofstra and Harvard. Scott Firman, a long stick midfielder transitioning to close defense, seems the likeliest candidate with redshirt freshman Andrew Helmer and true Nick DiPietro lurking.

“Obviously it hurts to have Nick out,” Cunningham said, “but we’re going to hold it down until he gets back.”

Mellen presumably slots back in next to Bomberry and Cunningham when he returns. The head coach complimented Mellen’s footwork in the preseason while saying he needs to improve off the ball and fix his “freshman mistakes.”

It’s unclear when exactly Mellen will get that chance but when he does, as Desko said, he has the top assignment every game to look forward to.

“The sooner we get him back,” Desko said, “the better off we’re going to be.”

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