Here is the seventh installment of a series that checks in with the seven Division I programs in the state to give a glimpse into the past and the future. Teams are scheduled to appear according to the chronological order in which their seasons ended. Tuesday’s visit was with Towson. Wednesday’s visit is with Loyola.
The good: In a season when the Greyhounds fell short of their objective of capturing back-to-back national championships, they did boast a first-team All-American in Joe Fletcher. The junior defenseman recorded 64 ground balls and 17 caused turnovers while being asked to shadow opponents’ top attackman. Fletcher became the program’s first player to earn first-team honors since midfielder Gavin Prout in 2001, but coach Charley Toomey said he does not think the accolade will go to Fletcher’s head. “Joe Fletcher is just a lunch pail guy,” Toomey said. “He’s a guy that’s going to come in every day and give you his best effort – whether it’s on game day or a Monday. He prepares the way that you want every kid in your locker room to prepare. And what he’s willing to do is to grab onto some of the younger guys and to kind of teach them. Rather than worry about himself and develop his own game, he now understands the importance of having the guys around him develop. So that’s where I’ve seen Joe take that next step. We’re so happy with what he’s been able to accomplish on the field. It’s going to be real important that he comes in and helps us to develop younger guys.” … The offense finished the season ranked 11th in Division I in scoring after averaging 11.8 goals, and significant piece of the puzzle was junior attackman Justin Ward. The Glen Burnie native and Old Mill graduate led the team in assists (35) and points (62) and ranked 11th in the country in assists per game (2.2). Toomey said he was most impressed by Ward’s evolution as a scorer. “[H]is goal was to not only be a feeder but to be a threat on the offensive end as a scorer, and I think he proved to a lot of people that he has the ability to do that,” Toomey said. “Justin got what he worked for. A lot of kids, it comes naturally forth. Justin Ward is not afraid to put the hard work in. He’ll come in and watch film with the coaches, but more importantly, when no one is watching, he’s out there and he’s doing something to make himself better. So it didn’t surprise us at all to see Justin have the kind of success that he had. We kind of expected that, and we’re going to expect it again in his senior year.” … The team was a senior-heavy group as evidenced by the five starters who graduated and five more who contributed to the program’s success. But the coaches were also able to cultivate results from several freshmen and sophomores. Sophomore attackman/midfielder Nikko Pontrello registered 16 goals and 19 assists and sophomore defenseman Pat Frazier posted 24 ground balls and 12 caused turnovers as starters. Freshman attackman Zach Herreweyers compiled 19 goals and three assists, sophomore faceoff specialist Blake Burkhart won 47.1 percent of his draws and scooped up 41 ground balls, and freshman defensemen Justin Verratti and Jason Crane got significant playing time. Their experience will be pivotal if the team harbors any hope for the future. “Those guys got meaningful minutes for us, and we’re going to need them as juniors and sophomores to play significant roles,” Toomey said.
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The bad: After graduating just two starters from the squad that won the university’s first Division I NCAA title, Loyola appeared poised to become the first team to repeat as national champion since Syracuse did it in 2008 and 2009. The team fared well for the most part, but was bounced from the semifinals of the Eastern College Athletic Conference tournament by Ohio State and promptly lost to seventh-seeded and eventual NCAA titlist Duke in the first round of the NCAA tournament. From players showing up late for meetings to cell phones ringing in the locker room, Toomey conceded that he may have underestimated the obstacles facing teams trying to repeat. “A lot of people talked to me about the challenges of winning, and I may have pooh-poohed that a little bit because I felt that we had so much talent and the same kids,” he said. “Quite honestly, we need to go back to work. We need to go back to winning practices and never take a day off. We need to be a more disciplined team in my opinion, and that’s something we did a terrific job of [in 2012], and I think that may have slipped a little bit.” … The team was barely edged by the Blue Devils in that first-round contest, falling 12-11 in double overtime. But the Greyhounds coughed up a 7-2 advantage with 3:06 left in the second quarter and could not protect an 11-10 lead in the final 3:32. Toomey called the loss to Duke “a microcosm for our whole season.” “We were undisciplined, we had 10 fouls, and that’s not the Loyola way,” he said. “I don’t know where the [preseason] polls will have us, but I know that when we come in and see the polls, we’re going to be hungry, and I think with the senior leadership that we will have, we’ll be motivated the right way to get this thing fixed. A lot of people have said, ‘You had a great season.’ By our standard as coaches and certainly in our locker room, it was a disappointing season because we felt we were built not necessarily to win another championship, but we felt like we were built to at least get to the final eight and then you’ve got to get a little bit lucky. So it was a disappointment in our locker room.” … The team was strong in many statistical categories this season, but faceoffs were an area of vulnerability this season. The unit ranked 46th in the nation with a 46.2 percentage, and Burkhart (114-of-242) and junior Brendan Donovan (55-of-121 for 45.5 percent and 13 ground balls) were just so-so. Toomey said the onus is on the coaches to beat the bushes for players who can help the team improve on faceoffs under the watchful eye of volunteer assistant coach Steve Vaikness. “The one thing we want to do for Coach Vaikness is create competition and maybe we didn’t have the competition that we felt like we needed every day at practice, and that’s probably one of the biggest concerns that we have that we need to address,” Toomey said. “Everybody makes themselves a little better every day at practice when you have somebody pushing you and you’re scared that you can lose your job. That’s what our goal as coaches is, to bring in kids that are going to compete. Don’t get me wrong. We love the kids that are in our locker room currently. But it’s our job as coaches to never let you feel comfortable, to make sure that you’re challenged the right way. … We’re not used to being under 50 percent at the X, and we need to improve that.”
Personnel changes: Loyola bade farewell to five starters, but the one position decimated by graduation was the midfield. The entire first line of Chris Layne (14 goals and 10 assists), Sean O’Sullivan (18, 4) and Davis Butts (8, 11) is gone as are second-line midfielders Harry Kutner (3, 3) and Phil Dobson (4, 1). Pontrello could remain in the midfield, and juniors Matt Sawyer and Kevin Ryan are leading candidates to join Pontrello as starters. But Toomey is optimistic about several others on the roster. “[A] guy like [redshirt freshman] Jeff Chase who has been in our locker room but has been injured, we think he’s ready to explode,” Toomey said. “And we also really believe in [freshmen Thomas] Labadini and Tyler Albrecht. Tyler Albrecht’s a kid that was playing really well for us and stepped on the field for a few runs against Duke in the playoffs, and we think he has an opportunity to really help us. So we’re happy with what we have returning, but I think we all know that we need a few freshmen to step in and fill some holes.” … The graduation of attackman Mike Sawyer (36, 7) leaves the Greyhounds with an opening for a right-handed shooter. Ward is cemented as the quarterback, and Herreweyers and junior Brian Schultz may battle for the left-handed spot. Pontrello – if he does not stay at midfield – and Matt Sawyer could fill the right-handed spot, but Toomey said some promising recruits could also warrant playing time. “After them, Matt Cunningham, Zack Sirico, a couple of other incoming freshmen, they have that opportunity to compete for that spot,” Toomey said. … The defense has a few holes to fill, too. Crane and Verratti might be the primary competitors for the starting role created by the graduation of Reid Acton (22 ground balls and 18 caused turnovers), and the departure of short-stick defensive midfielder Josh Hawkins (11 goals, two assists, 25 ground balls and 13 caused turnovers) should open the door for junior Kyle Duffy (14 ground balls and two caused turnovers) to pair with junior Pat Laconi (four goals, six assists, 24 ground balls and 20 caused turnovers). But there is still some ambiguity regarding who will replace long-stick midfielder Scott Ratliff (14 goals, four assists, 77 ground balls and 29 caused turnovers). Frazier was Ratliff’s backup in 2012, but his development as a defenseman may keep him there. Junior Tom Robinson and sophomore Alex Klincewicz have been waiting in the wings, but Toomey is confident that the coaches will find a capable successor. “Replacing the pole, hey, we may not be able to play as much offense as we have in the past with our pole, but we’ll develop the next guy,” Toomey said. “We’ve had the luxury of guys like P.T. Ricci and Scott Ratliff playing here, and we’ll find the next one.”
Forecast for 2014: Partly sunny. Loyola found out that life as a reigning national champion was not all candy and chocolate as the team dealt with internal issues and inspired opponents. The team still had a successful season, but barely managed to get into the 16-team field of the NCAA tournament. The graduation of five starters and Ratliff and Hawkins would seem to suggest that the 2014 campaign may be even more arduous, but the Greyhounds will move into the Patriot League where they will likely vie with Lehigh and Bucknell for conference supremacy. And Toomey is a master motivator who will not let the players forget the pain of dropping that double-overtime contest to Duke in the first round of the NCAA tournament.