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Defense for Loyola Maryland men’s lacrosse to be tested by Virginia in NCAA first round

During a stretch earlier in the season in which the Loyola Maryland men’s lacrosse team won five of six games, the defense surrendered an average of 8.2 goals, which is suffocating by the sport’s standards.

But the good vibes came to an end March 24 with a 12-11 loss to Patriot League foe Bucknell. To hear senior defenseman Foster Huggins explain it, the setback was not terribly surprising and was in fact educational.

“I think we got away with a few things in the few games before that, and obviously, Bucknell took advantage of those situations,” he said. “Any loss is going to be eye-opening in the sense that you’re really going to look at what you did wrong – more so than you would after a win. So we really got reprimanded after that game, and it was definitely the turning point.”

Since that defeat, the Greyhounds (12-3) have won seven consecutive games, captured their fourth Patriot League championship in five years and earned the No. 6 seed in the NCAA Division I tournament for a home game in the first round.

The defense has allowed an average of 8.3 goals during the team’s winning streak and has given up double-digits in goals to only one opponent. The unit ranks 12th in the country in goals allowed per game (8.5) and second in caused turnovers per game (10.0).

The defense’s recent dominance will be tested in Saturday’s first-round home game by Virginia (12-5), which ranks seventh in the nation in scoring at 12.7 goals per game and scored against Loyola in a double-overtime win on Feb. 10. It was the most goals Loyola gave up all season.

While many defenses seek to limit opponents to fewer than 10 goals in a game, the Greyhounds’ benchmark is eight. This spring, the unit has permitted eight goals or fewer in nine games.

“We strongly believe that if we force the other team to play six-on-six versus our best six guys, it’s very tough to do that,” senior short-stick defensive midfielder Jared Mintzlaff said of opponents’ objective to reach 10 goals. “So it really becomes about, how do you limit the number of penalties you give them and the transition opportunities and the early-offense opportunities, and that’s how you can keep them to eight or below.”

The unit is brimming with experience. Five of the seven defensive starters are seniors, and junior goalkeeper Jacob Stover (McDonogh) is a three-year starter. The familiarity the players have with each other has been the foundation for their success, according to Mintzlaff.

“A lot of guys on our defense have been around for four years, and we’ve played a lot of meaningful games and a lot of meaningful minutes,” he said. “And that translates to having a defense that is a lot more solid all around and trusts each other since we’ve played together for four years. I know what [senior short-stick defensive midfielder] Brian [Begley] is going to do on the field, and I know what the other players are going to do. So that translates into more success, I think, and more trust in each other as far as defense goes.”

The defense is headlined by Huggins, who leads all Division I players in caused turnovers per game (3.3) and total caused turnovers (49), and Stover, who ranks 12th in goals-against average (8.34) and 22nd in save percentage (.528). And the duo of Begley and Mintzlaff is considered one of the top short-stick defensive midfield pairings in the nation.

That unit, however, did not fare well in the season opener against the Cavaliers, who scored three goals each in unsettled situations and after faceoffs, and two each in transition and man-up offense. Only three goals occurred in six-on-six sets, and Loyola coach Charley Toomey said the team must do a better job of impeding Virginia in the middle of the field.

“It’s almost like three sets,” he said. “You’ve got to defend the early transition, then you’ve got to defend the play behind the substitution game, and then you’ve got to defend the six-on-six. We’ve got to handle the first two really well to get ourselves in a position to play six-on-six versus Virginia. … If we can get it to a six-on-six set, then we’ve defended the first phase of Virginia, and then we have to dig in and play good, solid team defense.”

A key individual matchup will pit Huggins against Cavaliers sophomore attackman Michael Kraus, who is one of only seven Division I players with at least 80 points. (Greyhounds junior attackman Pat Spencer is in that group with 86.) In the regular-season meeting, Huggins shut out Kraus in the first half before the latter scored one goal and assisted on two others in the second half.

“In settled sets, what’s going to be most important is limiting Michael Kraus and his powerful, bulldozing left-handed dodges,” said ESPN analyst Quint Kessenich, a former Johns Hopkins goalie. “He’ll barrel to the paint left-handed, and he’s tough to stop. And they’ve got some nice stretch shooters in [midfielders] Matt Moore and Dox Aitken.”

This season, Loyola has had mixed results against high-powered opponents, defeating fifth-seeded Johns Hopkins, 12-5, on Feb. 17, but losing to fourth-seeded Duke, 13-9, on March 10. Toomey hopes the defense’s familiarity with Virginia will help Saturday night, but he also knows the Cavaliers will have a similar sense about the Greyhounds.

“I think we’ll be a much better prepared team defensively for what they’re going to do and vice versa,” he said. “And they’re going to be much better prepared for what Loyola is going to bring to the table.”

Huggins said the knowledge that a loss will mean a premature end to the season has the players’ attention.

“That’s something we’re keeping in mind for this weekend because obviously everything counts now and it’s either win or go home,” he said. “So we’re trying to make sure we focus and put together a full game – both six-on-six and transition-wise.”

edward.lee@baltsun.com

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