By Mike Dougherty
From the moment he stepped onto the field at Syracuse University four seasons ago, JoJo Marasco was on the verge of greatness. The former all-American at Somers was rarely more than a dodge away from the highlight reel.
The lay-it-all-on-the-line approach was nearly his undoing.
Marasco usually inspired a buzz in the crowd whenever he got up to speed, but there have always been critics. When two very talented classes graduated and left him to lead, every shortcoming was highlighted.
The Orange struggled last season, and much of the resulting ire was directed at Marasco.
He played on and came back this winter even more resolute. Syracuse began winning and got back in the national spotlight. Marasco played like a reinvented version of himself, getting loose and setting up teammates when the defense closed in.
It was the kind of play that inspired the Orange to share and share alike.
“JoJo’s always been a guy that’s had good vision and, especially to start the year, he was one of the only players coming back to us that was a proven offensive threat,” Syracuse head coach John Desko said. “He was getting a lot of early slides and double teams. I think that kind of forced him to be a more of a feeder, which is something that comes naturally to him.”
The Orange went 11-3 in the regular season with marquee wins over the likes of Virginia, Johns Hopkins, Cornell, Notre Dame and Princeton. Next came a Big East championship, and the No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Marasco was named Big East midfielder of the year after leading Syracuse with 53 points. He also came up with 35 assists to break a Paul Gait record and soon found himself among the five Tewaraaton Award finalists.
The winner is to be announced May 30 during a ceremony in Washington, D.C.
“I always thought putting all the hard work in would one day pay off,” said Marasco, who assisted on the tying and winning goals in Saturday’s NCAA semifinal 7-6 victory over Yale. “It finally has this year. We’re having so much fun as a team and I’m so proud of all the guys. My senior year for Syracuse, I wouldn’t have it go any other way.”
He’s always had a penchant for comebacks.
“JoJo is like the Steve Nash of lacrosse, making everyone around him better,” Somers coach Lew Janavey said.
Teammates now trust Marasco with the ball; coaches, too.
“I’m more relaxed,” Marasco said. “I just play lax out there now and let the game come to me. All season, I’ve played with a lot of confidence and I just feel like every time I have the ball I can make a dodge and draw the defense to me, and then make a pass or take a shot. I’m just having fun. Coach is letting me play, and that’s huge for me this year.”
The energy is contagious.
“I think the other players understand that if they get open, especially when JoJo has the ball in his stick, he’s going to find them,” Desko said. “I think they work extra hard to find space knowing that they are probably going to get the ball with an opportunity to score. He’s been able to get more people involved in the offense, and the more threats you have out there, the harder you are to defend.”
Wait, there’s more.
“He’s actually turned into a pretty good defensive player, too,” Desko added.
Marasco has never been accused of lacking passion or confidence. He showed up on campus and promptly asked to wear No. 22, which is an honor reserved for players expected to join the ranks of the program’s all-timers. Marasco got the jersey three years ago.
That also made him a fluorescent target whenever things weren’t going well.
“We talked a lot about that before it happened,” said Janavey, who last week went up to Syracuse to watch Marasco play his final home game. “I think he always felt more pressure living up to his own name than he did living up to a number. That’s all part of his personality. Some people are just made to deal with life on a big stage.”
Nobody is prepared for hate mail, though.
“That was tough,” Marasco said. “We had an up-and-down season last year. We made it to the playoffs, but we really had to work for it, pulling off two big wins in the Big East tournament. There’s a lot of pressure (wearing No. 22), but I knew sophomore year when I asked to wear it that I would have to constantly make plays. … There’s been stuff here and there, but honestly, the Syracuse fans have been so good to me in my four year here.”
When the NCAAs are over, Marasco will be coming downstate to play Major League Lacrosse for the Long Island Lizards. He’s got to complete a semester of student teaching before he’s done at Syracuse, and the plan is to stay involved with the game.
“I’m excited about playing professional lacrosse, and I’ll be running some camps,” he said. “I want to keep on playing and get my name out there, help grow the game.”