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.”