The NCAA men's lacrosse tournament is still one week away, although the playoffs might as well be under way with the opening faceoff this afternoon at Curley Field.
Before what promises to be a packed house under a hot sun made for midsummer, the No. 3 Greyhounds will play host to down-the-street rival Johns Hopkins, with a first-round bye in the 12-team national tournament up for grabs.
Both teams expect to learn something today.
Since winning four straight after its only loss at Syracuse, Loyola (11-1) wants to know how its powerful offense will perform against the No. 6 Blue Jays, whose defense has improved significantly since suffering through a 1-3 start against the nation's toughest schedule.
Hopkins would like to see its best team show up once more against a top-notch opponent. That happened three weeks ago in a 20-11 rout over Maryland, in what was easily the Blue Jays' best showing of the spring. But the Blue Jays have been naggingly inconsistent, as last week's unimpressive 10-8 victory over Towson illustated. The Tigers were missing 11 suspended players, including six starters.
Blue Jays coach John Haus, still smarting from Hopkins' most recent victory during its six-game win streak, went so far as to call the Blue Jays "decided underdogs" today -- basically unheard of during the 37-game rivalry that has been dominated by Hopkins, 34-3.
Then again, the pendulum clearly has swung Loyola's way recently. The Greyhounds, who whipped Hopkins, 14-5, early last season, are going for their third consecutive victory over the Blue Jays (7-3).
The Greyhounds have home-field advantage, depth and offensive momentum on their side, having averaged 18.5 goals over their four-game streak.
But don't try to sell the Blue Jays as underdogs to Loyola coach Dave Cottle, who still looks at the opponents and respects All-America threats like attackman Dan Denihan, midfielder A. J. Haugen and goalkeeper Brian Carcaterra. Not to mention a retooled offense that has gotten sparks from freshmen attackmen Adam Doneger and Bobby Benson and junior midfielder Rob Frattarola.
"We have some concerns about stopping Hopkins," said Cottle. "They have made changes that have helped their team tremendously."
Benson (20 goals) has given Hopkins a solid presence on the crease in his nine starts, while Doneger's strong shooting on the wing has made Denihan even more effective. Doneger has 17 goals, all in his last seven games. He is the first Hopkins freshman to record five consecutive multi-goal games since Terry Riordan did it eight times in 1992.
"Adam has really stepped it up. Bobby is a great inside player who always gets open," said Denihan, who has carried Hopkins with 20 goals and 31 assists, by far the team high. "They've come a long way. It's been a big boost for me."
The Blue Jays are counting on a great game from Carcaterra, lots of possessions behind the spark of excellent faceoff man Eric Wedin, and continued progress from a front-line defense that has benefitted from the addition of Shawn Nadelen.
But Hopkins is facing an offense as hot as any unit in the nation. The Greyhounds, led by Gavin Prout (39 goals) and Tim Goettelmann (38), are the country's second-highest scoring team. Loyola also does not waste shots, can hurt an opponent from many angles and loves to share the ball.
The Greyhounds' extra-man unit is the most proficient in the game. They are shooting 41 percent, with Prout leading the way at an amazing 65 percent clip. Midfielders Mike Sullivan (21 goals, 10 assists), Mike Battista (22, 6) and Peter Haas (14, 7) are threats. So is attackman Bobby Horsey (17, 11). Gunnar Goettelmann (team-high 17 assists) distributes the ball.
The Greyhounds will welcome David Metz back to their defense, after he missed last week's Hobart game with a sore hamstring. They also will welcome the heat that should test both benches.
"The team that is freshest at the end is going to win," Cottle said.
That team should be the Greyhounds.
For updates on today's lacrosse scores, go to www.sunspot.net/sports.