Tuesday’s entry is the seventh and final installment of a week-long series taking a look at each of the seven Division I programs in this state according to their order of finish from last season. Check back Wednesday for the start of another series previewing each of the eight Division III programs in Maryland, and The Sun’s lacrosse preview is slated to be published on Friday, Feb. 8. This is Loyola’s turn.
Overview: The bar has been set. After finishing 2011 with an 8-5 record and an absence from the NCAA tournament, the Greyhounds bounced back in resounding fashion, tying a school-record 12 consecutive wins to open the year and ending the season on a six-game run to bring home the university’s first national championship. Charley Toomey and several players have taken great pains to establish that the current squad is quite different from last year’s team, but there’s no denying that the pieces are there for Loyola to streak into the postseason and perhaps make more history.
Reason for optimism: An offense that ranked eighth in Division I in scoring by averaging 12.1 goals returns five of six starters. But the biggest hole was created by the graduation of attackman Eric Lusby, who set an NCAA tournament record with 17 goals en route to compiling 54 goals and 17 assists. That would appear to put the onus of scoring on senior attackman and Tewaaraton Award finalist Mike Sawyer, but Toomey thinks that burden should be shared by many. “I hope it puts more pressure on the other guys,” he said. “We have to make up 54 goals, and to say that Michael Sawyer is going to make all 50 of those up, he’s done his job. Everybody else has to figure out maybe six or seven more points in their game.”
Reason for pessimism: Hit the rewind button as faceoffs are once again an area of concern for Loyola. With J.P. Dalton (206 of 394 for 52.3 percent and 57 groundballs) gone, the competition has boiled down to sophomore Blake Burkhart and junior Brendan Donovan, a former specialist at Robert Morris. Toomey and volunteer assistant coach Steve Vaikness, who has overseen faceoffs since 2007, are open to a rotation, which could include senior midfielder Davis Butts and senior long-stick midfielder Scott Ratliff. “I think that’s something that remains to be seen, but I would probably say that Blake Burkhart is probably going to get the majority of them, and Brendan Donovan would be coming off the bench when he needs a spell,” Toomey said. “And when we couldn’t win meaningful draws last year, we’re not opposed to putting Ratliff or Butts up there.”
Keep an eye on: The void created by Lusby’s departure is a significant one, but that doesn’t mean that the team won’t fill it. Junior Brian Schultz and freshman Zachary Herreweyers have been solid, but sophomore Nikko Pontrello is poised to build on the four goals and six assists that he registered last season. “Nikko’s been the guy who has been down there, and I’d be hard-pressed to say that Nikko won’t be starting for us,” Toomey said. “I would say that’s he’s probably our guy. I think you see it in terms of his confidence. He was running out of the box as a second-line middie, and this year, the ball’s in his stick an awful lot. We’re asking him to attack that left side. We recognize that he’s going to be very different from Eric Lusby, who was a pure shooter. Nikko’s a guy that can break you down, and he gives us another dodger to go with.”
What he said: The Greyhounds have been widely recognized as the No. 1 team in many preseason polls, but it’s not entirely universal. Some players said they’ve heard grumbling that the team has never been in the position of defending a national title and will therefore succumb to the pressure. Toomey said he hasn’t heard that criticism, but he’s not losing any sleep over it. “That comes with the territory,” he said. “We’ve never been in this position. We need to go out and defend it and work hard every day and stay where we are. But it’s not about where you are on Feb. 16. It’s about where you are on May 2 or whenever that last game is.”Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun