Gary Gait is back at Syracuse leading the women's team
Down by three against Georgetown in the finals of the Big East tournament, the Syracuse Orangewomen ran to the sideline for a timeout expecting the worst. Their coach, Gary Gait, a three-time national champion as a player (seven-time as a coach), four-time All-America and "Michael Jordan of lacrosse" did the unthinkable: He laughed at them.
"He looked at us and said: 'Guys don't be so tense,'" said captain Kristin Brady. "We're going to win."
As they did in all but three games this season, the Orangewomen prevailed 12-6 to clinch their second straight Big East title and secure a NCAA home game for the first time in program history.
"I think there's a point in every game when you just need to relax," Gait said later. "I made a conscious decision to act that way."
When he first arrived at Syracuse in 1988, Gait made a generation fall in love with the game with his theatrical style, summarized by the "Air Gait" (where he jumps over the goal to score) and brought a new form of excitement with highlight-reel worthy moves to lacrosse. During his career Syracuse won three consecutive national titles.
More than 15 years after he broke every offensive school record, with his celebrity firmly established as one of the most influential people in the game, seeing Gait back on the Orange sidelines raises an obvious question: Why did he come back to coach a girls' team?
After longtime coach Lisa Miller left for Harvard, Syracuse called Gait, who at the time was vacationing in Puerto Varas with his family, to ask him to come back to his alma mater. With his oldest daughter getting ready to enter high school and many old friends still in the area, part two of the Gary Gait era at Syracuse began.
"[Since he came] everybody eats, sleeps and breathes lacrosse," said senior midfielder Bridget Looney. "He's made us remember why we love the game again."
Gait served as an assistant on Cindy Timchal's staff at Maryland after graduating from Syracuse in 1991. He helped the Terps win seven national championships during his tenure, thanks in part to his tutelage of players such as Jen Adams, the first-ever Tewaaraton Trophy winner and four-time All-America Kelly Amonte (who is going for her fourth straight championship as the coach at Northwestern). Adams, now an associate head coach at Maryland, credited Gait with teaching her the stutter-step that eventually made her the NCAA all-time leading scorer, telling her, "If you can get this down, it will make you famous."
"It was like Michael Jordan teaching you how to play lacrosse every day," Adams said. "Whenever I teach the stutter-step in a clinic, I tell them this is what Gary Gait taught me."
What Gait's emphasized this year with the Orangewomen is basic stick skills and footwork, making everyone comfortable enough to push a fast-paced offense. The result: Syracuse led the NCAA in goals scored and scoring margin. Gait uses practice as his own form of a lacrosse lab, encouraging his players to be comfortable enough to make up their new moves in the same way he made up his own.
"Gary's success is that his coaching philosophy is to give players the tools and allow them to excel," said Timchal. "He has this open mind that sees the game in the simplest terms and you can be creative."