Loyola Maryland and Navy have split six all-time meetings and will meet for the first time as Patriot League rivals. Navy won the first three games in 1939, 1942 and 1943, but Loyola has won the past three contests, in 1993, 2010 and 2011.
The No. 1 Greyhounds (9-1 overall and 5-0 in the conference) have won nine consecutive games after dropping a 14-13 overtime decision to Virginia in the season opener on Feb. 6. A defense that is tied for fourth in Division I at 7.4 goals per game has been anchored by a pair of seniors in goalkeeper Jack Runkel and defenseman Joe Fletcher. Runkel became the first player to win five Patriot League Goalkeeper of the Week awards, and Fletcher became the first to claim four conference Defensive Player of the Week awards.
The Midshipmen (4-5, 3-3) own tiebreakers over Lafayette and Boston University for the sixth and final spot in the Patriot League tournament and need a win against either Loyola or No. 14 Army to cement a berth. The defense ranks 21st in the country at 9.1 goals per game and is tied for 13th in average caused turnovers at 8.7. Senior long-stick midfielder Pat Kiernan and freshman defenseman Chris Fennell lead the team in that department with 15 and 11, respectively.
Here are a few factors that could play a role in the outcome at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis on Saturday at noon.
1) Loyola's offense vs. Navy's defense. The Greyhounds rank fifth in Division I in scoring, averaging 13.7 goals, and a good deal of credit goes to senior attackman Justin Ward and junior attackman Nikko Pontrello. Pontrello leads the country in goals with 37, and Ward ranks sixth in points with 44. With 87 combined points, Ward and Pontrello are the No. 2 scoring duo in the nation, trailing only Albany attackmen Lyle and Miles Thompson who have totaled 105 points. The Midshipmen are no slouches on defense, ranking 21st after allowing just 9.1 goals per game. But coach Rick Sowell joked that he would like to sneak out a couple more defensive players to limit Ward and Pontrello.
"They certainly present a big challenge for our defense," Sowell said. "But I think our defense has been solid throughout the year. We've faced some good challenges thus far, and this is just another one. We're going to try to neutralize their impact. You probably can't stop them. Slowing them down is probably the best you can expect. They're that good."
2) Loyola's defense vs. Navy's offense. The Midshipmen rank 24th in offense, averaging 10.6 goals this season. They have been especially powered by their starting attack. Senior Sam Jones leads the team in assists (14) and points (31), sophomore T.J. Hanzsche leads in goals (20), and senior Tucker Hull ranks third in goals (13) and points (18). That trio tends to dominate much of the discussion for opposing defenses, and the Greyhounds are no exception. But coach Charley Toomey pointed out that a defense that is tied for fourth in the country at 7.4 goals per game did not get there by abandoning its principles.
"You kind of want to do what you do, and what I mean by that is, we feel like we're pretty strong down low, but we're not going to press people out below goal line so that they don't get the ball and now all of a sudden, we've got the ball up at the middle of the field," he said. "That's certainly not what we do. We're going to try to stay true to who we are and how we play defense. We're going to ask Fletch [senior defenseman Joe Fletcher] to win a matchup, we're going to ask [junior defenseman] Pat Frazier to go down and win a matchup. When there's a time to slide, we're going to slide, and hopefully, we can do it as a unit."
3) Loyola's Graham Savio vs. Navy's Brady Dove. One of the few areas in which the Midshipmen have a statistical advantage is faceoffs. The Greyhounds have relied primarily on Savio, a freshman who has won 55.1 percent (86-of-156) and scooped up a team-high 45 ground balls. The Midshipmen have gone with Dove, also a freshman who has won 58.6 percent (116-of-198) and collected a team-best 59 ground balls. If Dove and his wings can gain an edge on faceoffs, that could give Navy the lift it needs to perhaps quiet Loyola's offense.
"That's been a strength for our team so far this year," Sowell said. "If we can win and do well at the faceoff X, that certainly helps. But at the same time, we're going to have to score some goals. On offense, we're going to have to be on our game."