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State of lacrosse is centered on Maryland

When the Division I men's lacrosse season opened in February, the penthouse of The Baltimore Sun's rankings was occupied by Duke, the 2013 NCAA champion; Syracuse, last year's runner-up; and North Carolina, an NCAA tournament quarterfinalist.

But in the past six weeks, the rankings have developed a Maryland state of mind.

Maryland, Johns Hopkins and Loyola Maryland are the top three teams in many polls, including The Sun's. The No. 1 Terps (5-0) and No. 2 Blue Jays (5-0) are undefeated, while the No. 3 Greyhounds (5-1) have won five straight after a season-opening loss in overtime.

The appearance of three Maryland-based programs at the top of the rankings is shocking to some — including ESPN analyst Mark Dixon.

"I think it is surprising when you look at your preseason top three," the former Johns Hopkins midfielder said. "I think for the most part, it was Duke, Syracuse and Carolina in some sort of semblance right there. Carolina has lost to Notre Dame, Syracuse has lost to Maryland and then they got beat by Virginia. Duke now has lost two in a row to Maryland and Loyola. The difference between these teams is so thin and the margin of error is so narrow because everybody is so good. Right now, there are legitimately 12 teams that could win the national championship, and Loyola, Hopkins and Maryland are all part of that."

Here are three factors that have contributed to the rise of Maryland, Johns Hopkins and Loyola:

Emerging offenses — All three offenses are ranked in the top 10 in Division I despite serious losses to graduation.

The Greyhounds rank third at 14.8 goals per game despite the departure of their entire starting midfield and one starting attackman. The Blue Jays are eighth at 13.8 goals even though they have had to replace one starter on attack and two more in the midfield. And the Terps rank ninth at 13.4 after graduation sapped them of two starting attackmen and two starting midfielders.

Despite those losses, all three offenses have reloaded via depth on their bench or the arrival of newcomers. Maryland coach John Tillman might have summed up his peers' thoughts when he said that graduation does not lower the bar.

"If you're building a program, there are certain expectations you want to have year after year," he said. "… You lose some guys and you can't really walk into the offense and say, 'Well, we lost some guys, fellas, so we're not going to be as good.' What you're hoping is, 'OK, you've got your opportunity, you have a certain amount of potential, let's really try to maximize that potential, and let's not settle.' "

Supportive defenses — While the offenses had to reload, the defenses for all three programs have provided an anchor.

Maryland returned senior goalkeeper Niko Amato — who might be the best goalie in the country — all three starting close defenseman and one starting short-stick midfielder. Johns Hopkins welcomed back one starting defenseman and its entire defensive midfield, including junior long-stick midfielder Michael Pellegrino, whom Dixon called the best long pole in the nation. And Loyola is led by senior defenseman Joe Fletcher, the only collegian on the U.S. men's national team for this year's Federation of International Lacrosse World Championship, and three other returning starters on defense.

All three defenses rank in the top 10 in Division I, and Blue Jays coach Dave Pietramala said a veteran unit can serve as a foundation for a retooled offense.

"Your hope is that your defense will allow the offense time to grow and develop and to find its rhythm and find the right personnel," he said. "You hope that early in the season the defense can carry a little bit while the offense kind of develops and hits its stride."

Strong faceoffs — All three teams have relied on this unit to give the offense more possessions and alleviate pressure on the defense.

Johns Hopkins ranks eighth in the country with a 60.6 faceoff percentage, Maryland is tied for 22nd at 54.5 percent, and Loyola is 28th at 52.3 percent.

Greyhounds coach Charley Toomey said it's no coincidence that eight of the top 10 teams in The Sun's rankings are also in the top 30 in faceoff percentage.

"When you're starting with the ball, you're going to give yourself a chance," he said. "… If you have the ball, the other team has to come and play you, and you're going to get your opportunities."

As quickly as Maryland, Johns Hopkins and Loyola climbed the ranks, they could fall just as swiftly with a bad loss or two combined with a run by some other teams. That's why Dixon said no team should feel too comfortable with about six weeks left in the regular season.

"The sport has become a 'You're the champs' one day and 'You're the chumps' the next," he said. "… Two weeks from now, the Top 3 could look completely different and maybe Maryland, Loyola and Hopkins are out of the Top 10. That's how tempestuous this season is."

edward.lee@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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