Jordan Vale unleashed a shot from well outside the box early in the second half against Colgate back in early September.
Syracuse had already scored four goals in the game, including three in the previous five minutes and one less than 45 seconds before.
Vale watched as the ball swooped into the top right corner of the net. Syracuse went on to punish Colgate 6-0, the first of many statement wins for the Orange on the season.
That was when senior Mark Brode knew this team had something special. He knew this year would be a considerable improvement from his previous three seasons at Syracuse.
Little did Brode know, though, that the Orange would go on to finish second in the Red division, host the first postseason game in school history and win two NCAA tournament games. Syracuse shattered preseason expectations and ended up constructing the most accomplished season in school history.
“The past couple years, it goes unsaid that we didn’t do too well,” Brode said. “I think basically that would have been the normal thing — for us to finish in last place again — but we just wanted to prove something this year.”
That was exactly what they did.
“Ultimately we had a desire to be better than last year,” SU defender Chris Makowski said. “None of us liked that feeling. We wanted to prove people wrong.”
As the mindset of the team evolved, nightmarishly brutal losses never manifested like they did last year. Instead, painful defeats transformed into exhilarating wins, and the fan base continued to grow as the team piled on win after win.
“We realized we had a close-knit, hard-working group that brought everything they had day in, day out,” McIntyre said. “When that came together it translated to results on the pitch.”
After a close loss to NCAA tournament-bound Niagara, Syracuse outscored its opponents 15-0 over the next three games, including the lopsided win over Colgate.
Shifting into Big East mode with a mission to flip the script entirely, the Orange finished the year 5-3 in conference.
In Brode’s three-year stint prior to the 2012 campaign, the team won three total Big East games. Chemistry rose to an all-time high, as Vale emerged to become a prolific goal-scorer and became opponents’ worst nightmare.
Ted Cribley, Tony Asante and freshman goalie Alex Bono continued to shine, as the Orange continued to win.
After monumental wins over South Florida and Villanova, Syracuse earned a spot in the Big East tournament for the first time since 2005.
SU lost 4-2 to eventual No. 1-seed Notre Dame and anxiously awaited its fate as the selection show continued to get closer.
Syracuse players sat inside the Carmelo K. Anthony Basketball Center on Nov. 12 — their destiny moments away from being revealed.
They made it. Just barely.
“I think we deserved to be in the tournament, but we kind of squeaked in,” Brode said. “I heard we were one of the bubble teams. We were kind of nervous. We thought it was 50-50 — pretty much a flip of a coin.”
Once the Orange qualified for the tournament, the players knew they didn’t want the journey to stop abruptly. They wanted to embark on a run they’d never forget.
“Coming into the tournament we were all really excited,” Makowski said. “Even though we were underdogs and no one expected anything from us, we went out and proved we deserved to be there.”
The Orange knocked off favored Cornell 1-0, winning the first NCAA tournament game in school history. Then, just three days later, Syracuse came back from a 2-0 hole against No. 14-seed Virginia Commonwealth, capped by a dagger by Louis Clark in the 108th minute.
“Louis’ goal was great,” Brode said. “I think that was one of my favorite moments here at Syracuse. When he scored we all just sprinted on the field.”
Syracuse’s incredible run came to an end with a gut-wrenching loss to Georgetown in penalty kicks, but McIntyre said his players shouldn’t dwell on the loss.
He knows his players are devastated at the moment, but he said when they look back down the road and reflect, they’ll realize this season was truly one for the ages.
“It was just continuing to push forward, and for that I’m extremely proud of this group,” McIntyre said. “When they finally take a big breath, I think the guys will take a lot of pride in what they’ve accomplished this year.”
Kevin Ollie was sitting in his office early in September when a serene Jim Calhoun walked through the door ready to deliver bittersweet news.
Known for his intense coaching style and tempered disposition, Calhoun’s message was more serious than the typical tactical adjustment or word of advice.
“That was the first time in a long time I had seen him at real, real peace,” Ollie said. “The only time I really see that in him is when he’s around his grandchildren.”
Calhoun dropped the inevitable news just a few moments later. After a Hall of Fame 40-year career that yielded 873 total wins and three national championships at Connecticut, the legendary coach knew it was time to step down.
At the age of 70, Calhoun was battling hip problems and said he was ready to move onto the next stage of his life. He knew the best possible replacement was Ollie, who played four years under Calhoun from 1991-95.
Ollie took his scrappy, in-your-face style of play to the NBA, where he played for 11 teams in a 13-year career, including time playing for Larry Brown and Chuck Daly. After spending the last two years as an assistant coach at UConn, Ollie was tabbed to take over the program when Calhoun announced his retirement in September.
“I’m an empty cup and I want everybody to fill me up with positive things and things I need to do,” Ollie said. “Then I take those things and make sure they fit in with my philosophy, and I try to go out there and do it.”
Ollie was given a one-year, $625,000 contract that runs through April 4, 2013, two days before the Final Four. He’ll face a difficult challenge in his first year, as the Huskies received a one-year postseason ban due to low Academic Progress Rate scores.
Despite the ban and the coaching change, UConn forward Tyler Olander said his team is even more focused than in past years.
Olander said having someone as upbeat and personable as Ollie is exactly what the team needs. Compared to Calhoun’s frequently fiery temper, Olander said Ollie is more positive and easy to approach.
“Everything is moving forward,” Olander said. “He doesn’t really yell or be negative. I think that helps the chemistry of the team.”
Connecticut Deputy Director of Athletics Paul McCarthy said Ollie makes an incredibly strong first impression and has a talent for connecting with people.
“He’s one of those people that looks you in the eye and you know you’re dealing with a caring, genuine person,” McCarthy said. “He has a talent for connecting with people. He’s smart, engaging and immediately likable.”
UConn guard Shabazz Napier said Ollie has served as a father figure, helping him deal with the rehabilitation process after suffering a stress fracture in his right foot.
After practice, Ollie often talks with Napier, advising him to keep his head up and stay optimistic during the slow recovery process. A guard himself, Ollie also gives him tactical advice as he works to mold Napier into a complete player. “Me getting over my foot injury and having to sit out, he’s been talking to me and telling me to be patient,” Napier said. “He’s been pushing me to be 100 percent and making me work hard. Those are things you really can’t put a measure to.”
While many people on the outside consider this a year of transition swirling with off-court issues for UConn, Ollie doesn’t see the situation the same way.
“I don’t know about the instability,” Ollie said. “Me and you can look at the same wall and I can see something totally different. I see stability. I see our guys coming in with one heartbeat. It’s not me; it’s we.”
UConn’s core group of players is dramatically different than it was last year, with Jeremy Lamb and Andre Drummond leaving for the NBA and Alex Oriakhi transferring to Missouri. Changes in personnel will force Ollie to adjust quickly.
“I have to put my imprint on this team,” Ollie said. “I have to go out there and show them what I expect them to do. They know that and I understand that’s the standard of UConn basketball. I put the jersey on. I graduated from the university.”
Ollie feels prepared for the task after playing for Calhoun and working under him for two seasons. His work over the years made him the right man for the job in Calhoun’s eyes.
Ollie said he feels honored and blessed to be at the helm of such a prestigious program. He plans to use the lessons Calhoun has given him over the years to make the most of the opportunity.
“It’s a brotherhood,” Ollie said. “For 22 years, this has been a brotherhood. This is all I know: UConn basketball. It’s a special place and it’s an awesome feeling for me to come back and coach.”
Immediately immersed in his new role, Ollie has more responsibility and has taken the reins from Calhoun, yet the former coach hasn’t stepped away from UConn basketball entirely.
The Hall of Fame coach is now Special Assistant to the Director of Athletics, and serves as an aid to Ollie and the rest of the coaching staff and team.
Olander said Calhoun is still very much involved in UConn basketball and has attended multiple practices a week.
“He’s critiquing the team and giving individuals advice,” Olander said. “After every practice, he takes me aside and tells me what I’m doing well and what I should work on.”
Though Calhoun will be around, the job is Ollie’s now. With the future uncertain and the postseason unreachable, all the new coach can do is focus on the regular season.
But when he has a question, needs advice or has a moment of uncertainty, Calhoun is always present and available, watching from afar and making observations.
“He’s like a second father to me,” Ollie said. “Someone that I can really rely on when I need any questions answered. Sometimes he knows what I’m going to ask him before I even open my mouth.”