Reigning national champion Loyola owns a commanding 13-2 advantage in this Eastern College Athletic Conference series and swept Fairfield in two games last season, including a 14-7 thumping in the championship final of the conference tournament. The Stags have never won on the Greyhounds' home turf.
Fairfield (6-4 overall and 2-1 in the league) has won three of its last four contests, but is trying to bounce back from an 8-7 loss to conference foe Bellarmine last Saturday. Junior attackman Jordan Greenfield leads the offense in goals with 22 and points with 29.
No. 10 Loyola (8-2) has won four straight games since a 9-8 setback to Duke on March 8. In his first season as a full-time starter, sophomore Nikko Pontrello – who has played both attack and midfield this spring – ranks second on the team in assists with 13 and points with 26.
Here are a few factors that could influence the outcome at Ridley Athletic Complex in Baltimore on Saturday.
1) Fairfield's Jack Murphy. In his first season as the full-time starting goalkeeper, the junior entered the week ranked 18th in Division I in save percentage (.556) and saves per game (11.4). Murphy has made at least 10 stops in seven of his 10 starts, and coach Charley Toomey said the Greyhounds should anticipate a confident netminder. "He's got a lot of saves," he said. "… Anytime you look at a young goalie and he's got that many saves, that means he's capable of getting hot and shutting you down on any given day. So we've got to get on the young goalie and stay on top of him for four quarters. That's something that – quite honestly – I don't think we've done yet this year."
2) Loyola's man-down defense. The Stags are ranked in the bottom third of the country in man-up success, converting 27.1 percent (13-of-48). But Fairfield is getting almost five extra-man opportunities per contest, which can be interpreted as a sign that the players are playing aggressively and drawing fouls. Fortunately for the Stags, they rank second in the nation on man-down defense, allowing just four goals on 29 attempts (86.2 success rate). "I think we're watching the chemistry develop there," Toomey said. "Not only is it a lot of returning guys coming in, but we've got a freshman [defenseman] in Justin Verratti who has gotten some meaningful minutes and that's helping us. It's baptism by fire for our two young guys, but they're having a terrific run at the moment."
3) Ground balls. The key for any offense is getting possessions, and one method to tilt the scales is to win the battle for ground balls. Fairfield is tied for 19th in Division I in ground balls per game with 32.0, but opponents are also averaging 33.1 ground balls. Toomey – whose Greyhounds average 33.6 ground balls, which is good enough for ninth in the country – speculated that the Stags are playing more attackmen in the midfield and choosing offensive potency over possessions. "Anytime you're doing that, you're going to be pretty skilled, which is dangerous, but you might not be as athletic as having a two-way middie," Toomey said. "That's what they're asking of their second midfield. It seems like they have at least two and maybe three former attackmen running midfield. They're probably pretty skilled, but when the ball hits the ground, they might not be as athletic as some guys around them."