Justin Ward (Old Mill) quarterbacked the Loyola offense from… (Steve Ruark, Photo for THE…)
With five weeks remaining before the NCAA men's lacrosse tournament, there is no clear-cut favorite to win the championship, but No. 1 Loyola Maryland appears to be the team to beat.
The Greyhounds (9-1) have good speed and depth. They are well-coached, creative on defense and offense, and strong in the middle of the field as far as midfielders and goalie. Coach Charley Toomey won't say it, but Loyola has been the most consistent team since the season started, and that alone separates it from the rest of the field.
"I think our seniors are doing a great job of keeping our heads down and worrying about the next practice," said Toomey. "Nobody really wants to be No. 1 at the beginning of the season and nobody really cares if you're No. 1 at midseason. The key is to get a good seed going into the tournament and find out where you are at the end of the season.
"But we'll accept where we are and see if we can fight our way through this until the end," Toomey added. "We're not going to run away from it."
There are some teams who can close the gap. No. 5 North Carolina (8-2) appears to be peaking, beating its last three opponents — Harvard, Maryland and Johns Hopkins — without four starters. But the Tar Heels have been eliminated in the NCAA quarterfinals the last two years, which makes them suspect.
As usual, No. 8 Syracuse (6-3) has great athleticism, but the Orange has had problems winning faceoffs. No. 7 Virginia (8-3) has 12 players as good as any other team in the country, but the Cavaliers can't put together four good quarters.
No. 3 Duke (9-2) is known for making late-season runs, but the Blue Devils might not be able to overcome defensive deficiencies. No. 6 Maryland (9-1) is too stagnant on offense, and No. 2 and 9-0 Cornell's lack of depth will probably show up in the postseason.
That brings us back to Loyola.
The Greyhounds have no glaring weaknesses and no area an opponent can exploit every week. Toomey and his staff have done a great job of moving players around and putting them in the right positions.
Loyola has stars like senior attackman Justin Ward (11 goals, 33 assists) and senior Joe Fletcher, who might be the best defenseman in the college game. But it's the chemistry that makes Loyola good.
For instance, in the previous two seasons, Ward (Old Mill) quarterbacked the offense from behind the goal but is now operating out front and drawing slides, which has resulted in more goals from inside. The change was made because Loyola didn't have the vertical shooters from the previous two seasons.
The result has been more goals for attackmen Brian Schultz (18 goals, 9 assists), and Nikko Pontrello (37, 6). Pontrello isn't just a great shooter on the run, but an excellent dodger who has become one of the country's top threats.
Loyola gets solid scoring from the midfield in Kevin Ryan (16, 2), Matt Sawyer (12, 5) and Jeff Chase (6, 4), but the big difference from a year ago has been defensive midfielders Pat Laconi, Kyle Duffy, Michael Kutzer and Ryan Fournier, who also plays with a long pole.
The key here is that the Greyhounds don't allow opponents to take shots in the middle of the field at senior goalie Jack Runkel.
At 6 feet 3 and 245 pounds, Runkel doesn't have quickest feet but he does take up space. Because of the forced shot selection, Runkel is more effective and has a .607 save percentage.
Of course, Runkel is flanked by Fletcher. He isn't imposing physically, but he takes out the other team's top attackman every week.
"He is extremely efficient and he makes winning plays," Dave Cottle, the coach of Major League Lacrosse's Chesapeake Bayhawks, said of Fletcher. "He is a team player. When you watch Loyola play, they have good movement and use space well on the offensive end. On defense, they play to their strengths because they take away the middle of the field and force a lot of low-angle shots. They know their roles and identity. They know who they are and what they are about."
Toomey agrees. A few years ago, he wouldn't accept the onus of being No. 1, but that changed when the Greyhounds won the national championship in 2012.
"We still need to develop more of a killer instinct, but that should come as we get more into the season," said Toomey. "Our kids realize that for us to be successful, we have to keep working hard, and we have to play four quarters every game. If we do, then we like our chances."
I already do.