When top-ranked Loyola Maryland and No. 6 Johns Hopkins add another chapter to their rivalry Saturday at Ridley Athletic Complex, both teams will bring powerful attack units.
The Greyhounds rank sixth in Division I in scoring at 13.3 goals per game, while the Blue Jays are 10th with a 12.1 average.
Even the players are similar. Loyola senior Justin Ward (Old Mill) and Johns Hopkins junior Wells Stanwick (Boys' Latin) are the conductors, directing traffic and leading their teams in assists with 49 and 38, respectively. Greyhounds junior Nikko Pontrello and Blue Jays sophomore Ryan Brown (Calvert Hall) are the all-around threats who lead in goals with 47 and 35, respectively. And Loyola senior Brian Schultz and Johns Hopkins senior Brandon Benn are the snipers with 33 goals each.
"Justin Ward is the guy that makes [Loyola] go. Wells Stanwick for Hopkins is the one that makes them go," said ESPN analyst Mark Dixonr. "Both of them have great vision. But I think when it comes down to Pontrello-Brown and Schultz-Benn, I think Schultz and Benn cancel each other out on the inside. Brown is a better shooter, and he's the best shooter of the four, but I think the best dodger of the four is Pontrello."
Even with their similarities, the teams have progressed to this point very differently.
While Ward and Pontrello were locks for Loyola (14-1), Schultz — a mainstay on the team's extra-man offense — was promoted to the starting lineup after sophomore Zach Herreweyers was ruled academically ineligible prior to the season.
"Obviously, the two knowns were Justin and Nikko," coach Charley Toomey said. "With Brian kind of being thrown into the mix, it's absolutely something that we are just tickled pink by. Brian has done everything you would hope for and dream for, for a kid that's starting on the left side here at Loyola. He's finishing his shots, and this past weekend, he became a little bit more of a feeder with finding some middies on the inside. He's really only 15 starts into this thing, and we're hoping that he's saving his best for last. But definitely the chemistry they have created down there has just allowed that group to continue to grow week in and week out."
Schultz is quick to share credit with the midfielders, who dodge and force opposing defenders to slide off the attackmen.
"If we're not too much of a threat from up top, then defenses can pack it in," Schultz said. "When our middies are playing hard and dodging, it really spreads out the defense and gives us some opportunities. So as far as sparking the offense, I don't know if the attack can take all of the credit, because I think our midfielders do the hard work."
After failing last spring to qualify for the NCAA tournament for the first time in 41 years, Johns Hopkins (10-3) revamped its offensive strategy, spreading the task of initiating equally between the attack and midfield. It made sense. Pietramala pointed out that the attackmen are on the field longer than the midfielders, which can shuffle between as many as three lines.
"The plan was to involve the attack a great deal more, and I say a great deal more simply because before, our attack wasn't involved a lot," he said. "They weren't involved a lot in the initiating, the ball-carrying. They kind of wound up on the tail end of a lot of things. While they may have gotten their points in terms of goals, they were not nearly as involved with the play. This offense has allowed us to involve all six players. That was the goal."
Brown said opponents have begun to defend the Blue Jays attack differently.
"I think teams are starting to slide less to us because that's when we can use our skills when we swing the ball around," he said. "So teams are trying to make us win more of our one-on-one matchups instead of coming out and pressuring us. We just have to swing it around to the open guys."
Johns Hopkins may need a more productive outing from its attack, especially Stanwick, Dixon said. The team is just 1-3 when Stanwick finishes a game with less than four points, the ESPN analyst pointed out.
But Stanwick shrugged that off.
"The production might look like a lot of it comes from us, but if lacrosse had hockey assists, our middies would have a lot of them," Stanwick said. "A lot of them are really good one-on-one dodgers and can get the defense rotating, and it ends up in our sticks when they're trying to find the next guy."
The spotlight won't stray far from either attack unit, and Ward said he expects both sets of starters to embrace the challenge.
"Those guys are used to playing in big games and winning big games. Our attack, we've also played in our fair share of big games," he said. "So I think it's just going to be a product of what the game brings us. Our attack unit, we're not going to try to put too much on ourselves. We've played in big games. So it's not like we feel the need to make the home-run play early and often. We're just going to allow the offense to work, make our adjustments as we go throughout the game and take what the defense gives us."
The starting attack units have provided much of the offense this season for Loyola Maryland and Johns Hopkins, two of the highest-scoring teams in the country. Here's a breakdown of each unit and how it stacks up against the team's total output:
Loyola's Justin Ward, Nikko Pontrello and Brian Schultz
Combined goals: 96
Pct. of team's goals: 48.0
Combined assists: 75
Pct. of team's assists: 61.0
Combined points: 171
Pct. of team's points: 52.9
Hopkins' Wells Stanwick, Ryan Brown and Brandon Benn
Combined goals: 85
Pct. of team's goals: 53.8
Combined assists: 56
Pct. of team's assists: 57.1
Combined points: 141
Pct. of team's points: 55.1