Sol Bliss’ new pre-game routine goes something like this.
After pulling out his tattered and worn knee brace, he begins methodically fitting the straps through all of the buckles before finally pulling the brace snugly across his left kneeBliss stands up and begins to walk around. After feeling discomfort from the brace, he starts adjusting it again.
“I don’t think I’ve ever put it on without having to readjust it four or five times before I starting playing on it,” he said. “It’s never going to feel comfortable from sweating and sliding.”
The senior will have to go through the same routine for the rest of year and there’s no sign of him taking the brace off.
“I could sign a waver to get out of it but that says something to me,” Bliss said. “If you have to sign a waver, you might as well just do it.”
Bliss, who spent the fall rehabbing a torn ACL suffered during last year’s semifinal game against Virginia, is the only returning starter from that championship team. But Bliss has had to fight his way back.
The senior spent most of his offseason in the weight room, rebuilding a knee that allowed him to become one of the most feared defenders in college lacrosse.
The intense conditioning has left him in even better shape than he was last spring.
“Everyone busted their butts in the weight room, especially Sol,” sophomore Donn Vidosh said. “He was there when I got there, he was there when I left.”
As a result, Bliss runs with no limp and no fear of hurting his knee again.
“I’m 100 percent,” Bliss said. “You’re not going to hear any different.”
“He’s back at where he was,” Syracuse head coach John Desko said, “if not better.”
Unfortunately, Desko can’t say the same for the rest of his defense. Despite No. 7 Syracuse winning seven of its first 10 games, the three losses have come from defensive lapses. The Orangemen have struggled to replace All-Americans Billy St. George and John Glazel.
“I already miss them,” Bliss said. “Every practice, someone does something they shouldn’t have, and you think, ‘John (and Billy) wouldn’t have done that last year.’”
Junior Dan DiPietro and sophomore Donn Vidosh have stepped in admirably, but the defense isn’t as feared as last year’s group.
The holes on defense became painfully apparent in the fall when Bliss was still rehabbing and the Orangemen were forced to start a young core of freshmen and sophomores.
Putting a new group together in such a short period of time left the defense on their heels, learning the ropes as they went. With a completely new defensive line that hadn’t played with each other before, defensive communication became Syracuse’s Achilles heel.
“We could have the three best defensemen in the league,” Bliss said, “but if they don’t communicate, it’s not going to mean anything.”
When Syracuse got back to practice in early January, a lot of the time was devoted to communication.
“That was the first thing we worked on,” Bliss said. “Say something, repeat yourself, just say something. That gets you in the habit of talking more and more.”
Bliss has taken a large roll in molding the underclassmen into better defenders.
“When guys don’t know what’s going on, they’re going to look to coach, and then they’re going to look to me,” Bliss said. “That’s a lot of pressure on me. I can’t take practice off. I can’t take a drill off.”
But the Orangemen have taken large strides since their preseason struggles, most notably on April 6, when Syracuse held No. 11 Loyola to just six goals in a 17-6 rout. Desko, while pleased with the performance, was hesitant to compliment the defense.
“We know what we’ve got to do,” he said. “We’ve got some things to work on, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”
Still, things are pointed in the right direction, and the Orangemen have Bliss to thank for that.
“Our first goal is … to get better (everyday),” Bliss said. “But you have to be driven.”