After graduating five seniors and introducing 13 freshmen to the rigors of Division I men's soccer, Loyola would not have been faulted for experiencing a few growing pains in 2013.
Instead, the team has sprinted to a 5-0-1 start and is enjoying its best opening since 2008, while also earning votes in the latest National Soccer Coaches Association of America poll and sitting just outside the top 25.
Acknowledging that winning has boosted the Greyhounds' morale, coach Mark Mettrick pointed out that the team has benefited from sizable contributions from first-year players such as midfielder David Warburton, back Ryan Tuck and midfielder Laurin Vogel -- each of whom have started six games.
"Thirteen out of 23 [players] are brand new," Mettrick said. "That makes it especially good that we started out well with so many young players. But I'm aware that you're going to go through the difficult days of the season and it can be grueling. There's lot of games in a short period of time. So we've got to keep our focus in the right place to be able to maintain this mentality with a lot of young and new players.
"So I think that's going to be one of our challenges. We got out of the blocks well, but there are so many more games to be played. We're going to have to grow because we're quite young."
Sophomore forward Larry Ndjock, who is tied with Cal State Northridge junior forward Sagi Lev-Ari for third in the nation in goals (seven) and ranks fourth in points (14), said the team's youth hasn't been an obstacle.
"It's great so far. Our team is a little bit less experienced than last season because we lost five seniors, but this team makes it with a lot of hard work, a lot of focus, a lot of concentration," Ndjock said. "We know that we're not going to get a win just because we're at home. We know we have to work and we have to earn it. So far, everyone's trying to do his best in practices, and the people who come off the bench are trying to fight for a starting spot. It's just great because everyone wants to make everyone else better. That keeps the intensity high, it keeps the quality high, and I think that's what makes us better as a team."
Loyola's bid to remain undefeated will be tested Saturday night when No. 21 UMBC (6-0-0) visits Ridley Athletic Complex. The Retrievers are led by senior forward Pete Caringi III, who leads the country in points (18) and is tied with Delaware freshman midfielder Guillermo Delgado for the national lead in goals (eight).
The campus is beginning to warm up to the team's success and the players are just as excited, but Mettrick hopes that their main focus is centered on what's unfolding on the field.
"It is a challenge to keep it going because other teams see that and you become a little bit of a target," he said. "But I think the key is you just don't worry about anything except the next game and just focus on trying to do your best to win that game. If a streak gets put together, that's great, but we shouldn't worry too much about any of that. You can't look too far ahead and what's done is done. That's the best approach. So I don't feel any pressure in that respect."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun