Friday's entry is the first of a series taking a look at each of the seven Division I programs in the state, in order of finish from last season. The Sun's men's lacrosse preview is scheduled to be published Feb. 5. This is Loyola Maryland's turn.
Overview: The Greyhounds quickly buried memories of their 7-8 record in 2015 by going 14-4 overall and 7-1 in the Patriot League last year. In addition to sharing the Patriot League regular-season championship, they took home the conference's tournament crown and advanced to their first national semifinal since 2012 before getting bounced by eventual champion North Carolina. It would not be a stretch for Loyola to be tabbed as a preseason favorite in the Patriot League again and take another run at adding a national title to the one the program claimed in 2012.
Reason for optimism: A defense that ranked 15th in Division I after allowing just 8.6 goals per game last season will be a vital cog again.
Three starters, junior defenseman Foster Huggins (24 ground balls and 23 caused turnovers), senior defenseman Jack Carrigan (37 GB, 22 CT), and sophomore goalkeeper Jacob Stover (7.80 goals-against average and .569 save percentage) are back. Junior Ryder Harkins (5 GB, 3 CT) and sophomore Paul Volante are competing for the third starting role on close defense.
The unit's strength may be the defensive midfield of senior long-stick midfielder Ryan Fournier (seven goals, two assists, 49 GB, 16 CT) and junior short-stick defensive midfielders Brian Begley (32 GB, 3 CT) and Jared Mintzlaff (3 G, 17 GB, 9 CT). With valuable backups in junior long-stick midfielder Zac Davliakos (3 G, 11 GB, 5 CT) and freshmen short-stick defensive midfielders Matt Higgins and Alex Johnson, coach Charley Toomey is excited about the unit's capabilities.
"I would tell you that we have a tremendous amount of confidence with our Rope unit out there," he said. "It's a deep group, it's a confident group, and I really believe that the next two or three years here with that unit, we have something special."
Reason for pessimism: There will be some shuffling in the midfield after graduation sapped the unit of starter Tyler Albrecht (18 G, 4 A) and reserve Jeff Chase (5 G, 2 A).
Seniors Brian Sherlock (24 G, 13 A) and Romar Dennis (15 G, 5 A) will anchor the first line as junior Jay Drapeau (10 G, 3 A), sophomore John Duffy (6 G, 3 A), and senior Mike Perkins battle for the third and final spot. The two that don't run on the starting unit will lead the second midfield, which Toomey is counting on to provide balance and support to the first line and the attack.
"I do like last year how we played the first and second lines with much more balance than we did in 2015," he said. "I like the idea of having that balance and one thing as a coach who probably spends more time on the defensive end, I'm going to make sure that each unit has guys that can play defense, too. So I'm not going to put three guys who are purely great offensive players out there, too. So that's part of the thought process, too."
Keep an eye on: As concerned about his players' mental fortitude as he is about their physical conditioning, Toomey had the players read a book written by Jon Gordon titled "The Energy Bus," which advises readers how they can make an impact through attitude and approach.
It's part of Toomey's outreach to get the players to be more energetic and aggressive, especially at the beginning of games. The Greyhounds trailed by five goals or more before halftime in three of their four losses including a 9-2 hole to the Tar Heels at the end of the opening quarter in their national semifinal matchup.
"We want to remember the first quarter against North Carolina, and it translated into a scrimmage with Villanova this year where in the first six minutes of the game, I think we were down 4-1," Toomey said. "That's part of 'The Energy Bus' where we need to come out and get off the bus and play with some energy and how can we motivate each other to do that? So absolutely, we want to remember 2016 and know you were a whisper away from getting to the game that you practiced every day for."
What he said: Many teams lost more than the three starters Loyola lost after last season, which is one reason why the program is in the conversation for preseason contenders for the NCAA championship. (Well, that and the return of sophomore attackman Pat Spencer, who tied the school's single-season record of 89 points.)
Toomey is a big believer in how the culture in the locker room and off the field is just as important as the plays on the field. That might explain why he is guarded when asked about the Greyhounds' "potential."
"Potential is the French word for I haven't done anything," he said. "So that's kind of been our message to our guys. This group of guys has potential, but it will never be together for a spring season again, and today is your opportunity to make the most of today's practice and preparation."