Runkel has big body of work in Loyola net

6-foot-3, 245-pound goalie, who's looking to win 2nd national title in 3 years, shows size is underrated at position

Jack Runkel

Loyola goalkeeper Jack Runkel makes a save against Lehigh in the first half of the Patriot League men's lacrosse championship. (Steve Ruark, Photo for THE BALTIMORE SUN / April 27, 2014)

I have never understood why there aren't more big goalies in college lacrosse. No, I'm not talking about the blobs that eat up space and can block out the sun because they consume multiple cheeseburgers.

I'm referring to more of a finesse game where the goalie has size and decent quickness, but more importantly fast hands and good positioning.

Loyola Maryland's Jack Runkel comes to mind.

"As far as shot selection, they will hesitate," the 6-foot-3, 245-pound Runkel said about the influence of big goalies on shooters. "But we're not fun to watch. We don't have flash, we don't make acrobatic saves and we don't run up the field when clearing. We stay where we're supposed to be and make saves with our body."

And they win national championships, as Runkel did at Loyola in 2012 as a sophomore. Runkel, from Fairfield, Conn., has helped guide the Greyhounds to the No. 1 ranking again as Loyola prepares to host No. 6 Johns Hopkins on Saturday in the regular-season finale for both teams.

For three seasons, Runkel has been the punching bag for critics of Loyola. They've said that if the Greyhounds had one weakness, it was Runkel. They've said he was either too big or too slow.

But now, they can't say anything, because Loyola has won 14 straight and Runkel was named the 2014 Patriot League Goalkeeper of the Year after having been selected the league's Goalie of the Week five times.

"Runkel has had a great senior season," said ESPN lacrosse analyst Mark Dixon. "He has been terrific. When you talked about Loyola's woes last year, the way you finished that sentence was, 'They need better goaltending from Jack Runkel,' and he has been better this year."

Goalies would love to have the type of season Runkel is having. Entering the week, he was second in the country in goals-against average (6.69) and save percentage (.631). As far as getting his passes out and up, Loyola has a clearing percentage of .923.

Not bad for a big goalie.

"Jack has terrific hands and presence," said Loyola coach Charley Toomey, a former two-time All-America goalie at the school. "He is the same kid we saw in high school who commanded his defense and had poise. Once he makes a save, he is very efficient in surveying the field and making the right decision."

Runkel won't answer his critics now, or probably ever. He is much too humble for that. In fact, he agrees with some of them by saying he needed to become more consistent. But it was never about size or being too slow.

During the past three seasons, Runkel spent a lot of time working on drills to improve foot and hand speed. But in a time trial last winter, he tore a ligament in his foot.

He was forced to cut back on the speed training and worked more on positioning. It's frustrating to a shooter when a goalie snatches a shot out of the air, but even more disheartening when he beats you to the shooting area and the net is hidden.

"I am much more consistent with my body positioning," said Runkel. "As a big goalie, I get hit a lot. The balls would hit on my arm or leg and bounce wide. Now that I've been able to stay more consistent with my positioning, balls just roll down my body and into my lap, where I can corral the rebounds."

There are a lot of shots that are wide or too high of the cage because opponents try to counter Runkel's size. Loyola's defense also does a great job of forcing shooters out of the middle of the field and pushing them into the alleys.

With his size, Runkel cuts down on a lot of shooting angles.

Toomey has also noticed Runkel providing more leadership. Normally, he's pretty quiet, an outdoorsman who prefers golfing, fishing and a little country and western music. But this year, he has been more emotional.

A big save might draw a fist bump or a high-five. And when the big man gets pumped, so do the Greyhounds.

"He is more vocal -- not a lot of finger pointing on game day," said Toomey. "He is talking a lot more getting us in position. And when he gets excited, we all get excited because we're not use to seeing that from him."

It's nice seeing Runkel get some recognition. In high school, he was overshadowed by other local goalies like Jamie Faus and Sam Grinberg. Runkel was just that big old goalie from Avon Old Farms School.

Back then, he played offensive tackle until a concussion forced him out of the game as a junior, and two shoulder separations ended his hockey career. The only sport left was lacrosse, where he was forced to play in the goal by his father, Richard, at an early age. Privately, Runkel still has visions of playing attack.

"I joke around with guys like Justin and Nikko [attackmen Nikko Pontrello and Justin Ward] that I could hit that shot or those shots, no problem," said Runkel. "I still think I am an attackman in my dreams, but then I wake up and I'm a goalie."

The Greyhounds prefer it that way.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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