There are myriad reasons for Loyola’s five-game winning streak. The defense is surrendering an average of 5.8 goals, the offense unearthed an explosive attackman in freshman Zach Herreweyers while senior attackman and 2012 Tewaaraton Award finalist Mike Sawyer sat out two games, and the transition game was bolstered by the return of senior short-stick defensive midfielder Josh Hawkins.
Junior attackman Justin Ward pointed to another factor: practice.
“After that Duke game [a 9-8 loss on March 8], we recommitted to just getting after each other and really focus on executing the small details – catching the proper way, moving the ball quicker, letting the ball do the work,” the Glen Burnie native and Old Mill graduate said after the reigning national champion Greyhounds had waylaid Fairfield, 13-7, Saturday at Ridley Athletic Complex in Baltimore. “I think a lot of that is game by game offensively, we’ve been able to move the ball a lot better and then defensively, we’re playing better so that we’re getting more opportunities on offense, which has really added to that. In addition to that, we’re getting guys that are healthy. We’re almost back to full strength. So we’re getting all of our guys, all of our weapons on the field. If we want to make a run at this thing again, that’s what we need.”
The convincing victory over the Stags cemented a spot for No. 10 Loyola in the Eastern College Athletic Conference tournament. But that doesn’t mean that the team (9-2 overall and 5-0 league) is without any vulnerabilities.
The faceoff unit won just 29.2 percent (7-of-24) of its draws Saturday and is succeeding on just 51.0 percent (127-of-249) for the season. And Fairfield collected 14 more ground balls than the Greyhounds.
“We’re a little disappointed in some of the stats,” coach Charley Toomey said. “We don’t often get out-ground balled at home, and I really felt like losing the fourth quarter, we don’t like that. We don’t want that to be a characteristic of who we are. But you have to give Fairfield a lot of credit. … It’s just some things that we know we have to clean up before we have another big league game here on Saturday.”
That “big game” will be pivotal as top-ranked Denver (8-2, 3-0) will pay a visit. The outcome will likely determine the top seed in the ECAC tournament, and Loyola is well aware that the Pioneers are eager to avenge last year’s three-game sweep by the Greyhounds.
“It’s definitely been a challenge,” senior long-stick midfielder Scott Ratliff said of getting every opponents’ best effort. “It’s something we knew coming into the season that we’d see. Everybody’s going to be up for us every single game. So we just talk about trying to match that intensity and trying to match that energy, and I think in the last stretch, we’ve been able to do that and that’s why we’ve been able to be successful.”
*Loyola scored four goals in transition and another courtesy of a faceoff win against Fairfield. The defensive midfield’s ability to turn saves, turnovers and ground balls into instant offense provides a huge lift for the offense, according to Ward. “When they’re able to put in six goals and [junior short-stick defensive midfielder Pat] Laconi is starting fastbreaks, that’s half of our points right there,” he said. “It takes a bigger burden off of us. We have trust in them that when they come down the field, they’re going to make the right decisions. And when they are being that effective, teams have to get in the hole to stop them and that allows us to beat them in a subbing situation where we might be able to keep some of their offensive middies on the field, which makes it a lot easier for us to operate within our offense. Having [senior midfielder] Davis Butts dodge an offensive middie is going to be a lot better than him dodging their No. 1 pole. The way they run in transition and how effective they are in the clearing game, I think a lot of that leads to our opportunities.”
*As mentioned previously, the Greyhounds struggled against Stags on faceoffs. Fairfield won 17-of-24 draws, and junior Michael Roe won 15-of-22. In three career meetings against Loyola, Roe – a Lutherville native and Dulaney graduate – has won 67.2 percent (39-of-58) of his faceoffs. “The kid Roe gives us a hard time every time he steps on the field,” Toomey said. “We have a lot of respect for Michael Roe. I think [volunteer assistant] coach [Steve] Vaikness does a great job of understanding our opponent. Some weeks, we’re going to be able to get the ball out and allow Hawk [Hawkins] and Rat [Ratliff] and Duff [junior short-stick defensive midfielder Kyle Duffy] to make the plays. Today, it was a game where you had to pick the ball up at the X, and Michael probably got us a few times there. But I’ll give Dono [junior Brendan Donovan] and [sophomore] Blake [Burkhart] a lot of credit. I thought they battled against a very talented Michael Roe. It was a little frustrating because we felt like we couldn’t start the momentum at the X. We felt like there were times they scored a goal and they were going to get the ball back and we knew we had to get a stop. Luckily today, when we did get that stop, we were pretty dangerous in transition. We’re never going to try to slow the ball down because we’re not winning faceoffs. We’re a team that needs to run and whether that opportunity is at the X or after a save or after a ground ball or after a ride, we’re going to push the ball. Those guys are going to run into good faceoff guys down the stretch, and we certainly know that we’ve got our hands full next week with [Denver senior Chase] Carraro.”
*Fairfield has finished in third place in the ECAC standings in each of the last three seasons, but a fourth straight top-four finish might not be in the cards. Saturday’s loss dropped the Stags to 6-5 overall and 2-2 in the conference, and they currently sit in fifth place behind Loyola, Denver, Bellarmine (7-2, 3-2) and No. 11 Ohio State (7-3, 2-2). Fairfield will finish the season with three league contests against Air Force, Denver and Ohio State, but coach Andy Copelan said the team must re-discover its rhythm. “I want to make sure we get our guys back,” he said. “Right now, no one’s having fun when you lose two games in a row. It’s a crappy feeling, but that’s college lacrosse in today’s day and age. … We have a couple more real opportunities to play top-15 teams, but we need to play a lot better than we played today.”