They were crouched, tensely and intensely, at midfield: stick to stick . . . face to face . . . brother to brother. That was the rarity that unfolded Saturday afternoon when No. 9 Syracuse hosted No. 16 Navy in an important Division I men’s lacrosse game at the Carrier Dome.
Senior Joe Varello of Navy and sophomore Danny Varello of Syracuse dueled all game at the all-important faceoff circle, a couple of skilled FOGO (face-off, get-off) specialists from Kings Park who played their high school lacrosse at Smithtown West.
Saturday’s ending produced agony and ecstasy for the family. Joe, who won 16 of the 27 faceoffs, beat Danny on the draw with 9.5 seconds left, pushed the ball down the field, then scooped up a loose ball and scored the game-winner with two-tenths of a second left in Navy’s 13-12 victory. While his Midshipmen teammates staged a wild celebration on the field, the brothers shared a long, emotional hug.
“I wish someone else had scored the goal,” said their father, Joe Varello senior, tearfully, by phone from the raucous Carrier Dome. “I have mixed emotions. I’m incredibly happy for Joe and incredibly sad for Danny. This transcends the sport. I’m so proud of them for how they represented themselves.”
The unusual sibling civil war at the faceoff circle made for a stressful week. Joe, a 5-9 210-pounder, entered the game ranked 14th in the nation with a faceoff winning percentage of 59.6. Danny, a 5-10, 200-pounder, had a 49.8 winning percentage, 43rd in the country.
“It was a crazy feeling all week,” Joe Varello said in a phone interview on Thursday, a day before the team traveled to Syracuse. “I wanted to make it like any other week, but it wasn’t easy to stay away from the hype. What made it tougher was that it’s such an important game for both teams. There is a lot of emotion.”
For Joe’s younger brother, too. “It was very difficult to block it out,” Danny said before Thursday’s practice. “You try to treat it like it’s just another game and not let the whole family thing get in the way. But it was a weird week. The anticipation was a little crazy. It would’ve been better if it had just been a scrimmage.”
The showdown and its buildup was hard on Joe Sr. and his wife, Joann, too. They were in the Carrier Dome on Saturday along with numerous friends and family. They sat, quite appropriately, right on the 50-yard line between the two team’s benches, which are on the same side of the field. “I’m pretty passionate and pretty vocal. I couldn’t root for one or the other so I just yelled at the refs,” Joe Sr. joked.
So while they agonized every time their sons scrapped, Joe Sr. and Joann Varello could console themselves with this inescapable fact: As parents, they won every faceoff.
Not so for their sons. “I’ll be happy when we can look at each other as brothers again,” Joe Varello said, “and not as enemies on the field.”