Syracuse’s backup faceoff specialist, Danny Varello, poised to assist Final Four push
Jordan Phelps | Staff Photographer
Syracuse assistant coach Kevin Donahue knelt over, reached toward his left foot and pinched the turf. Syracuse lost another faceoff, 10 of the first 11, and this one opened the second half. On the ensuing possession, Yale’s Jackson Morrill worked off a screen at the X. Nobody slid to him, leaving Morrill with an open look at the goal. The goal put the Bulldogs up three and as Syracuse neared to a potential season-ending loss.
The No. 2 Orange compensated for a 4-of-22 faceoff performance — its worst since at least 2014, when SU’s most recent game-by-game statistics are available — to beat Yale and advance to the NCAA quarterfinals. But senior faceoff specialist Ben Williams struggled mightily, going a career-worst 1-for-12.
Syracuse’s chances at winning the faceoff — and making its first Final Four since 2013 — may come down not to its two-time Tewaaraton Award nominee, but to a freshman with only one start on his resume. No. 2 SU (13-2, 4-0 Atlantic Coast) freshman Danny Varello, once the third string behind Cal Paduda, could slot into the faceoff X in big moments against No. 11 Towson (11-4, 4-1 Colonial Athletic), with a trip to the semifinals on the line.
“It’s possible,” Syracuse head coach John Desko said. “He’s been doing a nice job this year in the times that he’s gotten in. He’s got some game experience but not a lot. He’s a very good changeup for us. He’s got quick hands.”
Varello, a 5-foot-10, 199-pound, faceoff specialist has appeared in eight games. Though he’s only three for his last 16, he consistently has won a shade over half (52 percent) of his faceoffs this season. Should Williams struggle on Sunday against Tigers specialist Alex Woodall, who ranks ninth in the country in faceoff winning percentage (60.9 percent), Varello is poised to enter the game in what would be a heightened role.
The freshman won 10-of-17 faceoffs in February against Army, 6-of-8 against Duke and a key faceoff win at then-No. 1 Notre Dame. He impressed Desko and Donahue with his hand speed and reaction time, both of which, teammates said, is second-to-none. He can recognize when his opponents over-rotate, jump out of position too early or fail to finish their clears. His next step is to be shorter to the ball and tighter with his movements.
Varello’s known as a “squash guy,” because he’s quick to clamp and screw the ball. That differs from a “power-clamp guy,” such as North Carolina’s Stephen Kelly, who grinds more and takes longer to wrestle at the faceoff X. Once winning the faceoff, Desko would like to see Varello improve his moves. “He just needs to pick it up and run with the ball,” Desko said.
At Smithtown West (New York) High School on Long Island, Varello won 70 percent of his career faceoffs. He developed the hand speed that propelled him past Paduda on the Syracuse depth chart. Varello’s brother Joe, a junior faceoff specialist at Navy, and his faceoff coach, Matt Schomburg, helped groom him since he began to specialize on faceoffs around the ninth grade.
“He’s not your typical stud athlete,” said Schomberg, who trains Division I college players out of his Fogolax Academy on Long Island. “He has a real artistic side to him. He can remember stuff from multiple faceoffs ago or years ago. He has a photographic memory. The intelligence level he has is pretty incredible.”
Working alongside Williams in practice doesn’t hurt. Williams is SU’s all-time leader in faceoffs won and ground balls. This season, his third with the Orange after transferring from Holy Cross, nagging injuries have battered him. Since he recovered last month, Williams still has not found the groove that placed him on the Preseason All-ACC Team in February.
Against Yale, Syracuse went to Varello early in the second half to stop the bleeding. It’s likely SU could call on its freshman just as early in the NCAA quarterfinals, should Williams get off to another slow start.
“Danny has a natural ability to win clamps and I think he’s gotten a ton better since he first got here in the fall,” Williams said. “If he continues to work on his ability a bit, he could have a great career here. He’s helped us this year.”
As a little kid, Varello hung the jersey of former SU All-American Mike Powell in his room. For years, he wanted to play for Syracuse and be the one whom SU depended on for possession time. What he does in his next opportunities may dictate the outcome of Syracuse’s season.
“Whenever they need me,” Varello said, “I need to step up.”
Published on May 19, 2017 at 6:05 pm