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Loyola vs. Notre Dame will be ultimate offense vs. defense showdown

Greyhounds' Lusby, Sawyer have combined for almost 100 goals, but Irish could be good enough to contain them

By Mike Preston, The Baltimore Sun

2:19 PM EDT, May 25, 2012

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Loyola attackmen Eric Lusby and Mike Sawyer have seen a lot of different zones and man-to-man defensive combinations this season.

Fairfield tried to match up with them by using two short-stick midfielders. And last Saturday, Denver played a zone that shut off Sawyer, but Lubsy blew up the Pioneers for five goals in Loyola's 10-9 NCAA quarterfinal win at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.

Next up for the No. 1-seeded Greyhounds is No. 4 seed Notre Dame on Saturday in the semi-finals at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. The Fighting Irish aren't just another quality opponent, but the best defensive team in the country with the nation's top goalie in John Kemp.

If any team can slow down Loyola, it's Notre Dame. Right?

"I'll be honest with you, it's a little bit of concentrating on everything else because when those guys get the ball in certain situations, there's very little you can do," Notre Dame coach Kevin Corrigan said of Sawyer and Lusby. "Now, you're hoping for your goalie to make a play."

"So I think one of the keys to defending them is keeping them out of the transition — whether it's full-field with their D-middies and poles who are so good, or whether it's in the half-field from scramble situations like a ground ball or a broken clear," Corrigan said. "I think it starts with that stuff and keeping them, hopefully, where we can keep a little closer eye on them in a six-on-six situation."

Loyola is averaging 12.48 goals and 41.5 shots a game. Sawyer, a Tewaaraton Award finalist, has 51 goals and seven assists. Lusby has 45 goals and 16 assists. To have two attackmen with nearly 50 goals each is almost unheard and hasn't been seen in this area since Brian Piccola and Terry Riordan played at Johns Hopkins in the early to mid-1990s.

Sawyer and Lusby are riflemen, precision marksmen who nail the corners. Their form is perfect, and once their arms are extended away from their bodies, it's over.

"You don't teach guys to shoot corners like that," Duke coach John Danowski said after Sawyer and Lusby combined for nine goals and four assists in the Greyhounds' 13-8 win over the Blue Devils on March 10. "If they are teaching that at Loyola, then I need to come to their practices."

Few opposing teams can decide who more dangerous. Is it Sawyer or Lusby?

That has been a problem. One is on one wing, and one is on the other. Pick your poison. Denver did, and it lost.

"Mike is having a great year and drawing so much attention from the defense that it opens up the other side of the field," said Lusby, who redshirted last season because of a knee injury. "Mike and I think it is hard to shut down both sides of the field, so it really is like picking your poison."

But the Lusby and Sawyer show isn't just about them. Loyola's first midfield of Sean O'Sullivan (16 goals, 11 assists), Chris Layne (11, 10) and Davis Butts (19, 13) is vastly underrated.

They possess a great combination of speed, shooting and precision passing. Butts is the fastest of the trio, so he usually draws the long-pole midfielder. Layne is the big, fast dodger, and O'Sullivan gets a lot of passes to the backside, where he initiates plays.

They force close defensemen to slide to them, giving Lusby or Sawyer separation, and when that happens, there aren't two better finishers on one team.

"They're easy to defend when you don't have midfield dodgers and you don't have to slide from [Sawyer and Lusby]," ESPN analyst Paul Carcaterra said. "But when they have midfield dodgers, you have to pick your poison. You have to rely on your one-on-one matchups from the midfield because you can't leave those guys with time and room."

Lusby and Sawyer have spent a lot of time studying Notre Dame, as they do every opponent. They're always looking at film and either first onto the field or last off it, taking shot after shot after shot.

They know Notre Dame welcomes this challenge. The Fighting Irish pride themselves on playing great defense. They are physical but not overzealous with their checks.

The Fighting Irish are so fundamentally sound and businesslike on defense that they appear boring at times. But they allow only 6.27 goals a game, best in the country. And they have two defensemen in Kevin Randall and Matt Miller who could give Loyola problems.

"They like to pack it in, especially when you initiate from behind, and suck all the top guys all the way down," Lusby said. "They are very disciplined and only slide when they need to. There is never an opportunity to have someone open off one pass. You have to string together multiple passes, get to [the] backside and continue to dodge to get your offense flowing."

And then there is Kemp. He led the nation in goals against percentage (.622) and save percentage (.636) this season. He's never out of position and has extremely quick hands.

"He made tons of saves last week against Virginia, and he is quick around the arc and crease. He moves well laterally," O'Sullivan said. "We're going to have to be smart and disciplined with our shots."

It's the classic matchup: The best offense versus the best defense. Lusby and Sawyer have been outstanding all season. Can they do it one or two more times to finish off Loyola's dream season?

"The year we're having right now is unbelievable," Lusby said. "Who could believe this would have happened? Let's be honest."

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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