Kayla Alexander sat in Manley Field House dressed in sweaty workout clothes. She placed her water bottle down, and the game face she wore for months transformed into a giddy grin.
Just three days removed from Syracuse’s painful loss to Creighton in the first round of the NCAA tournament, Alexander was in light spirits. Her goal at the start of the season was to qualify for the tournament, and that’s exactly what the Orange did.
But something didn’t sit right. Alexander yearned for something more.
A tournament win.
“Yeah, it’s a success, but at the same time, I felt like we underachieved,” Alexander said. “I feel like if you ask any of our teammates, they’ll say that. We had too much talent.”
After winning 23 regular-season games — a school record after 29 contests — Syracuse wasn’t satisfied with just making the tournament. Alexander said the team expected to reel off three or more wins and make a deep run. Her jovial expression soured as she talked about the team’s loss. She and the rest of the Orange look back on the season with mixed emotions, relishing all they achieved but disappointed by what they failed to accomplish.
The talent became evident early in the season. The Orange ripped off two seven-game winning streaks and enclosing just one loss, blowing teams out by laughable margins and finishing down-to-the-wire games it may not have a year ago.
Head coach Quentin Hillsman had the luxury of starting three freshmen for most of the season in Brittney Sykes, Brianna Butler and Cornelia Fondren. He also had three seniors in Alexander, Elashier Hall and Carmen Tyson-Thomas, who wanted to ensure this year ended differently than the previous three.
Alexander thought hard about what it was like playing with Tyson-Thomas and Hall for four years. Moments later, her eyes lit up and she set the time machine back to 2009, when she committed to Syracuse and first met Tyson-Thomas.
Alexander noticed something peculiar about Tyson-Thomas’ eyes. They were light brown and looked a little funky. Alexander said Tyson-Thomas insisted the bizarrely tinted eyes were her natural color every time it came up in conversation. More than a year later, Alexander noticed something different about her teammate’s eyes. They were dark brown, not light, and didn’t look as mystical.
The act was up. They were colored contacts.
“I was like ‘Really, Carmen? Why would you lie about something like that?’ But that’s Carmen. Always doing stupid stuff,” Alexander said with a chuckle.
That kind of chemistry and comfort — manifested via contrasting personalities — had been in the works for three seasons. One piece of the puzzle was Alexander, a Canadian superstar who Sykes dubbed a “gentle giant.” Her classmate Hall was a sharpshooting guard who donned a new hairstyle for what seemed like every game. Finally, there was Tyson-Thomas, a rebound-obsessed and tattoo-covered swingman who led the team vocally.
Alexander said Tyson-Thomas named her Big East sixth-man trophy Carlos II. She already had a teddy bear named Carlos I, so giving the trophy the moniker Carlos II was only natural.
“Carmen does her own thing,” Alexander said. “One thing I can definitely say is that we all have different personalities. Completely different.”
After struggling to get over the hump the last three years, it was time for Syracuse’s unified core group to accomplish its previously unobtainable goal of making the NCAA tournament.
The Orange finished third in the Big East and advanced to the conference tournament semifinals before falling to Connecticut. Hillsman said he never had to ask for effort from his players. They all bought into the system from day one.
“I thought we had a tremendous season,” Hillsman said. “I think you can point to a lot of different games and say that this person stepped up and won the game for us.”
One of those wins came in Hollywood fashion against St. John’s on Jan. 23. With the game knotted at 57 and 2.8 seconds to go, Sykes stole the ball and banked in an improbable shot from beyond half court at the buzzer to give Syracuse the win.
“Just to be a freshman and to hit that shot and make history, it was pretty cool,” Sykes said. “It’s going be talked about all four years that I’m here and even when I’m gone, so it feels kind of good.”
With that win, nestled between victories over tournament-bound DePaul and Louisville, on the Orange’s resume, the goal the three seniors had coveted for four years finally materialized.
Syracuse earned a No. 7 seed in the NCAA tournament and was the favorite against No. 10-seed Creighton. But the Bluejays outplayed the Orange on Saturday, causing the trio’s last hurrah to come to a screeching, stunning halt.
“When it first happened, I was in shock,” Alexander said. “I didn’t have any emotion. You go to bed, you can’t sleep. You just replay the game over and over in your head.”
Pat Root was in ninth grade when he was first exposed to floorball.
Root played hockey every Tuesday and Thursday morning in gym class. One day, his teacher decided it was time for a change. That’s when floorball made its way to St. Andrew’s in Ontario.
Little did Root know, he would go on to play for and captain the Canadian U-19 floorball team twice and compete in an international adult world championship. He helped floorball – a game with elements of ice hockey, box lacrosse and field lacrosse – gain popularity in Canada. Now, with lifelong experience playing a variety of stick sports, Root starts at long-stick midfield for Drexel.
“I think floorball has the same effects as hockey would have on playing lacrosse,” Root said. “The idea of having the stick in the hand and that motor skill is all the same throughout those three sports.”
The main differences between indoor hockey and floorball are that the boards around the rink go up to one’s knees and the stick can’t come up above the knees, Root said.
Despite Canada’s ties to hockey, floorball was an entirely new game to the country when Root first found out about it in gym class. He and his teammates played three nights a week and two hours a night, just for fun.
That was just the beginning, though.
Because of the sport’s lack of popularity, they were able to form a Canadian national team – 80 percent of which comprised players from St. Andrew’s – to compete at the world championships in Finland. The players knew they were in for a challenge, but they didn’t know just how strong the competition would be.
Canada got destroyed, finishing near the bottom of a group of about 25 teams, Root said. The players lacked the floorball finesse that European teams had mastered. Accustomed to indoor hockey and ice hockey, Canada’s physical style of play frustrated opposing coaches and didn’t bode well with referees, Root said.
“In Canada, when we’re born, they give us a hockey stick,” Root said. “The kids that we were playing on the German teams, on the Finnish teams, they get a floorball stick when they’re born. That’s what they do. That’s what they play.”
But Root wasn’t done. He used that failure as fuel for next year’s world championship. Assembling a team of both Canadian and European players who were cut from their own teams, the Canadians formed a more formidable squad heading into the tournament.
Playing in front of 3,000 raucous fans in the quarterfinals amid a memorable run, Canada still lost, but it put up a fight, falling to the heavily favored host Germany by just two goals, Root said.
“It’s kind of hard to compete with, but eventually, I think you catch up and you make that gap a little bit smaller,” Root said. “I think getting to the quarterfinals showed that North America is developing to play the sport with the rest of Europe.”
Root went on to play defense for the men’s national team and was its youngest player. He said his team lost one game to No. 2 Finland 14-2, but he scored a top-corner goal.
While floorball was a key component of Root’s life, it wasn’t the only sport he played growing up. He also excelled in box lacrosse since the age of 6. In ninth grade, he tried out for an American field lacrosse team and got cut, motivating him to improve. Root eventually made the Ontario-based Edge Lacrosse team, which is when Drexel head coach Brian Voelker first saw him play — Root’s floorball prowess in the back of his mind.
“We kind of found out about it while we were recruiting him,” Voelker said. “I don’t think anybody here really knew what it was. All the coaches got on the Internet and looked up some YouTube stuff.”
After breaking his arm on the third day of practice last season, Root redshirted. This year, he plays long-stick midfield and is first on the team in caused turnovers with 10 and second in groundballs with 21.
Fellow defender Matt Dusek has been impressed with Root – one of seven Canadians on Drexel’s roster – so far. He said playing floorball likely helped hone Root’s stick skills.
“He flicks the ball to the spots where nobody is and then picks up the groundball easily,” Dusek said. “With things like that, I think it helps him out a lot.”