Loyola junior defenseman Joe Fletcher and Johns Hopkins senior defenseman Tucker Durkin do not know each other personally. But they can still appreciate each other's skills from afar.
"He's probably one of the best defenders I've seen play," Fletcher said of Durkin. "The style he has, he's very physical and aggressive, but he's also controlled. I've been watching him as he's developed. Just the way he plays and the way he does things, he has a good balance between being aggressive and being smart."
Said Durkin of Fletcher: "He's obviously one of the best defensemen in the country. He's an efficient guy, good off the ground, doesn't make many mistakes. He's a high-energy guy that works hard. As a competitor, I have a lot of respect for him."
Fletcher and Durkin will get an up-close-and-personal look at each other — albeit from opposing ends of the field — when Fletcher and the No. 7 Greyhounds (10-3) visit Durkin and the No. 13 Blue Jays (8-4) at Homewood Field on Saturday.
Aside from the neighborhood rivalry, fans will be treated to a display of two of the top defensemen in the nation. Durkin is a returning Schmeisser Award winner — given to the country's best defender — while Fletcher is a rising star who was instrumental in Loyola's run to the university's first Division I national championship.
Fletcher and Durkin are both 6 feet 2, but ESPN analyst Paul Carcaterra said the defensemen offer different talents.
"Durkin is more of a lunchpail, beat-you-up type of defender because he's so physical," the former Syracuse All-American midfielder said. "He's the type of guy where attackmen probably struggle to get out of bed the next day because he beats you up so bad. He's so strong, athletic, tough. Fletcher is more of a technician with his body positioning. He's well-schooled from his days of playing high school lacrosse at West Genesee and then playing for [defensive coordinator] Matt Dwan at Loyola. I just feel like he's more of the technical defender. If Durkin beats you with brute force, Fletcher beats you with his head and his body positioning."
Fletcher was influenced by his father Chris, a defenseman at Le Moyne College, and neighbor Mike Schattner, a three-time All-American defenseman at Virginia, to take up the long pole at the age of 6.
Fletcher emerged last season when he limited Denver's Eric Law, Notre Dame's Westy Hopkins and Maryland's Owen Blye to a combined two goals and zero assists as Loyola captured the NCAA title. Fletcher said he enjoys shadowing an opponent's top attackman, but he also said he would sacrifice personal success for team accomplishments.
"There are different parts of the game playing defense and one of those is your individual challenge," said Fletcher, who ranks second on the Greyhounds in ground balls (49) and third in caused turnovers (17). "But in the end — and I think I can speak for the whole defense — I'd rather have my guy score six goals if that is all our team defense lets up. I'm happy with that."
Coach Charley Toomey said he thought the Greyhounds were getting a capable — but not shutdown — defenseman when Fletcher agreed to commit. But Fletcher's prowess is especially important considering how Loyola plays defense.
"We ask a lot of Joe," Toomey said. "We don't slide all over the place. We ask those guys to play their matchups and win their matchups, and we really felt like we were lucky and we just had a great kid in Joe Fletcher developing on a daily basis."
Like Fletcher, Durkin has been a defenseman since his youth league days, although he did have a dalliance as a faceoff specialist at La Salle College High School in Pennsylvania and even as a freshman at Johns Hopkins.
Durkin, who leads the team in caused turnovers (15) and ranks second among the defensemen in ground balls (24), uses his physical, 210-pound frame to his advantage, and has worked on being more vocal with his teammates.
"When I came in my freshman year, I had two senior defensemen who were great leaders out on the field and were vocal for the defense," Durkin said. "So I didn't necessarily have to be a communicator or a verbal leader out there because Sam DeVore or Matt Drenan took that responsibility for me. Moving forward, in my sophomore year, I tried to work on that a bit, but I don't think I was as good as a communicator. Even in my junior year, I was one of the leaders on defense, but I think I could have done a better job of demanding excellence throughout our team and our defense."
Durkin has been at his best in April, shutting out Albany sophomore attackman Lyle Thompson and Maryland senior attackman Kevin Cooper. Durkin's presence provides a certain level of comfort for his teammates and coach Dave Pietramala.
"I think when you have a young man like Tucker, it's nice when you're thinking about your next game and next opponent, and it's comforting to know what you're going to get from that person," Pietramala said. "Our staff knows what we're going to get from him not only on Saturdays, but from him every day in practice."
Saturday's contest should be a challenge for both defenders. Fletcher could be assigned to limit Blue Jays sophomore attackman Wells Stanwick (23 goals and 21 assists), while Durkin may have to contain Greyhounds junior attackman Justin Ward (26, 27). Whatever happens, both defensemen said they won't be looking for accolades after the game.
"I kind of don't think we want a lot of credit," Durkin said. "A lot of times, we're blue-collar, hard-working guys that just like to do our jobs. We're not necessarily the most outgoing guys. We like to go to work and help our teams in any way we can."