Despite being the defending national champion and winning nine of 11 games this season, Loyola needs to make a statement in 2013.
The Greyhounds have had other opportunities to do that this season, but they lost by two goals to No. 4 Maryland and one to No. 2 Duke.
No. 8 Loyola gets another chance when No. 1 Denver (9-2) comes to the Ridley Athletic Complex on Saturday afternon, and this outcome will be heard around the college lacrosse world.
"We don't have a win against a Top 5 ranked team on our resume. That's what is missing," Loyola coach Charley Toomey said. "We don't have that big win you can point to, so you don't have to explain the importance of this game to us. This is a very big game for Loyola. We understand that."
Loyola has won five in a row, including victories over Georgetown and No. 10 Ohio State, but a win against Denver would be significant when the selection committee meets to pick the tournament field. It would also serve notice that the Greyhounds have returned to top form and are serious threats to repeat as champions.
Toomey admits that this has been a season of transition, one that he heard about, but wasn't totally prepared to handle — including some off-the-field issues with players.
But he deserves some credit for how well he handled those situations, including a near half-season suspension of star defensive midfielder Josh Hawkins for violating team rules.
"A lot of people told me about how it would be different coming off a championship year, but with the number of returnees and seniors coming back, I kind of dismissed that idea," Toomey said. "Well, it has been significantly different, not all in a bad sense. People want more of you and your staff's time. They want more of your players' time, so there is less time to just sit back, watch film and prepare. You have to find balance.
"As for the other issues, they are just 18- to 20-year-old college kids. and we ask a lot of them. We ask them to give up their social life all but for one night. But you have to maintain that discipline and integrity, and I think we have done that. I like my team. I feel we are getting closer to having all our bullets, but we're not there yet. We're close.
We'll find out just how close Saturday.
Pioneers coach Bill Tierney is arguably the best coach in the sport's history. He has taken the program to new heights since arriving at the school four years ago after coaching for 22 seasons at Princeton.
But to get to where it wants to go, Denver has to show it can beat Loyola. The Greyhounds defeated the Pioneers three times last season, including a 10-9 win in the NCAA quarterfinals. Few have beaten Tierney three times in his career, much less in one season.
"Our guys know they lost three times to the best team in the country last year," Tierney said. "They take pride in being competitive with the national champions three times. Last year, however, is last year."
Like Loyola, Denver is on a mini roll with four straight wins. The Pioneers have had to deal with several injuries, which Tierney doesn't like to talk about. Neither team likes to make the trip across the country, but there is little either can do about it.
"The only problem the East Coast presents vs. Colorado is the humidity," Tierney said. "It usually takes our guys a practice [Friday] to get the sticks ready with the extra moisture in the air. Other than that, we travel on Thursday night, so we can get acclimated to the time change. Nothing serious.
"We did have the four wins in 13 days, with a couple being in overtime and not overwhelming efforts. Loyola is on a roll. So, with our injuries, we are far from peaking right now. Our whole team has been together only one time this year, the first one versus Duke. So, we have developed a lot of depth and continue to try to cope without playing with three or four starters. In the long run, we will be stronger for it, and we do not make excuses, as everyone has injuries."
The game will feature a great matchup because Denver has great offensive midfielders in Wesley Berg (33 goals, eight assists), Cameron Flint (20, six) and Jeremy Noble (nine, six), even though Noble isn't expected to play because of an undisclosed injury. All three are from Canada, and the Pioneers like to run a lot of two-man picks in the midfield.
When Tierney was Princeton's coach, he was known for building great defenses, but the Pioneers have a high-powered offense with attackmen Eric Law (25, 23) and Eric Adamson (18, seven). Denver is averaging 13 goals per game.
Loyola will counter with the best defensive midfield in the country, led by short-stick midfielders Pat Laconi and Hawkins, as well as long-pole midfielder Scott Ratliff. This group dominates action in between the restraining lines, and they can also score. Ratliff has 11 goals and three assists, while Hawkins and Laconi have combined for nine goals.
"It's rare that a team has to prepare his offensive middies for the other team's defensive middies as goal scorers, but that's one of the many things you have to address with Loyola," Tierney said. "They scored six goals against a very good team last week. Enough said."
Toomey said: "We know we're going to have our hands full with their attack unit. Denver is terrific and they can flat out play the game. They know us and we know them. There aren't many secrets, but we really need to win this game."