Loyola

Loyola's Mike Sawyer, center, celebrates a goal as teammates Josh Hawkins, left, and Scott Ratliff join him. The Greyhounds will have to replace all three this season, their first in the Patriot League. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun / April 27, 2013)

Friday’s entry is the last of a series taking a look at each of the seven Division I programs in this state according to their order of finish from last season. The Sun’s lacrosse preview is slated to be published on Friday, Feb. 7. This is Loyola’s turn.

Overview: The Greyhounds joined Duke (2010) and Virginia (2011) as recent teams that faltered in their bid to capture back-to-back national championships. (Syracuse was the last program to win two straight titles, in 2008 and 2009.) Loyola, which went 11-5 overall and 6-1 in the Eastern College Athletic Conference, has moved to the Patriot League, where Bucknell, Lehigh and Army have replaced the likes of Denver, Ohio State and Fairfield. Can the team overcome a minefield of new opponents and reassert itself into the conversation of national contenders?

Reason for optimism: The offense's production dipped slightly, from 12.1 goals per game in 2012 to 11.8 goals last season, but the unit could be just as potent with the return of a prolific attack.

Senior Justin Ward (27 goals and 35 assists) and junior Nikko Pontrello (16, 19) are back as starters, and sophomore Zach Herreweyers added 19 goals and three assists when Pontrello moved to the midfield. Even without graduated attackman Mike Sawyer (36, 7), coach Charley Toomey thinks the attack could be even better, thanks to more depth.

“It’s group that’s played together,” he said. “I would also say that you’re going to see [senior] Brian Schultz out there with Nikko and with Justin. We’re very lucky down there because [freshman] Matt Cunningham is coming along and [freshman] Jordan Germershausen is coming along. As a unit, that unit is really playing very well.”

Reason for pessimism: The pressure on the attack may be ramped up considering the losses in the midfield.

Three starters in Chris Layne (14, 10), Sean O’Sullivan (18, 4) and Davis Butts (8, 11) and a pair of experienced contributors in Harry Kutner (3, 3) and Phil Dobson (4, 1) have graduated. That leaves a huge void in the middle of the field.

Moving Pontrello to midfield is an option, but Toomey would prefer to keep Pontrello on the field as often as possible. That leaves seniors Kevin Ryan (6, 3) and Matt Sawyer (4, 0), sophomores Jeff Chase and Tyler Albrecht, and freshmen Brian Sherlock (a transfer from North Carolina) and Romar Dennis in competition for starting roles.

“Coach [David] Metzbower [the team’s offensive coordinator] is constantly tinkering with the lineups to figure out the right combination of guys,” Toomey said. “I do think we’re settling in. … So we feel like we’ve got six guys in the mix. We’ve just got to figure out the right combination of guys.”

Keep an eye on: The offense fared well despite struggles by the faceoff unit, which won 46.5 percent (178 of 383) of its draws last season.

That figure could drop with the graduation of long-stick midfielder Scott Ratliff and short-stick defensive midfielder Josh Hawkins, the team’s top two wing players. Toomey said their departures have shifted priorities for faceoff specialists Blake Burkhart, the leading candidate; senior Brendan Donovan; and freshman Graham Savio.

Loyolya has "allowed some of those faceoff guys to win some of those wars independently and not really try to throw it to the wings,” Toomey said.

“Those guys [on the wings] haven’t been asked to pick up a lot of the ground balls. The faceoff guys have been doing a terrific job of battling and getting it out quickly and making decisions on their own.”

What he said: The Greyhounds enter their first season in the Patriot League as the preseason favorites to win the conference, but Toomey is wary about sitting back and being content.

Bucknell, Lehigh and Army won’t appreciate a newcomer taking their spoils, and Navy and Lafayette lurk as potential dark-horse candidates. Besides, Toomey has seen how other Loyola teams have fared in their Patriot League debuts.

“That’s probably the biggest concern that we have,” he said. “I’ve watched our soccer and I’ve watched our basketball, and I think they’ve gone through something that we’ve got to be prepared to go through. You’re learning a new opponent every week and a different style, a coaching style. We have an idea of how Lehigh and Bucknell play, and certainly we’ve played the Naval Academy in years past, and I would imagine that Army is pretty similar to the Naval Academy. But it’s a different style.

"Every program has it own identity. So not only are we learning the identity of the Patriot League teams, but we’re opening up with Virginia and Penn State. So we’ve got about four teams on our schedule that we’re comfortable with, and we’ve got to figure out an awful lot going forward. … We learned how to compete in the ECAC, and we’re going to have to learn very quickly how to compete in the Patriot League.”