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Preston: Loyola Maryland goalie Jacob Stover embraces challenge of prolific top-seed Penn State

The formula for defeating the No. 1 seed Penn State men’s lacrosse team is simple, and yet the Nittany Lions have only lost once this season. The opposing team must win a high percentage of faceoffs and groundballs, make the most of its offensive possessions and get superb goaltending.

Are you listening, Jacob Stover?

Stover, a senior from McDonogh, has been the best goalie in the country this season and a major reason why No. 8 seed Loyola Maryland will play Penn State on Sunday in an NCAA Division I quarterfinal in East Harford, Conn.

But neither Stover nor Greyhounds coach Charley Toomey have seen an offense as prolific as Penn State’s. The Nittany Lions are averaging nearly 18 goals a game and beat UMBC, 25-10, on Sunday in a game that was basically a first-half submission.

“They keep moving off ball and it’s like everybody has the ball in their stick,” Toomey said. “Actually, I have never seen any team move like they do and can be chaotic. Princeton used to have that type of ball movement when [coach] Bill Tierney was there, because he didn’t have the guys who could carry the ball. With Penn State, they are always moving, and you don’t see their guys holding onto the ball long when it’s in their stick.”

The Nittany Lions (15-1) have outscored opponents 285-164 this season and have a nation-best 171 assists. Their shots-on-goal percentage is .691, and they are averaging 40.8 shots per game.

Even their special teams are special, with the extra-man offense having scored on 33 of 55 opportunities. Penn State has one of the country’s best feeders in attackman Grant Ament (26 goals, 83 assists) and one of the country’s top scorers in attackman Mac O’Keefe (66 G, 18 A). Fellow attackman Dylan Foulds has 36 goals and 13 assists while midfielders Nick Spillane (25 G, 19 A) and TJ Malone (30 G, 6 A) have also made major contributions on offense.

Somehow, Stover has to slow the Nittany Lions down.

“They have a lot of great feeders, a lot of guys who can just step in and rip,” said Stover, the eldest son of former Ravens All-Pro kicker and Super Bowl champion Matt Stover. “They have great spacing, creative shooters and are very physical even with the ball in their sticks.

”We have to stay within our identity. That means we have to go out and play hands, crowd their space, be ready and organized behind the ball and be physical inside the box. We have to dictate to them where we want them to go, not where they want to go.”

It all sounds good in theory, but Loyola has struggled on defense this season. The Greyhounds are allowing nearly 10 goals a game and would have allowed more if Stover wasn’t playing so well. He has at least 11 saves in all 16 games.

His save percentage of .594 is second best among Division I goalies, and his 231 saves are tied for third in Loyola single-season history. Stover wants to play Penn State because he has come up big in big games.

He had 18 saves against Virginia and Rutgers this season and 17 in the Greyhounds’ 15-13 opening-round win against Syracuse on Saturday. Last year, Stover finished with a career-high 19 against Yale in a quarterfinal loss to a Bulldogs team that eventually won the national championship.

“I told myself after our game against Syracuse, ‘I want to play against Penn State. I want to play against the best,’ ” Stover said. “We played against the best last year, and if we’re going to get on the road to winning a national championship, then sooner or later we have to play them.

“After last week’s game, we’re riding a wave right now. It took a lot of effort to come back by four goals and actually win by two.”

The NCAA tournament can be a stressful time for students facing final exams and the pressures of winning, but for a senior like Stover, this could be his last week of college lacrosse.

Few expected him to start for four years at Loyola. The only thing left for him to do is win a national championship ring.

“You don’t project many players to come in and start as a freshman,” Toomey said. “But he was able to step in and play right away. He continued to get better as a sophomore, and at the end of that year, I told him I had taken him as far as I could take him. He was so fundamentally sound. The rest he had to do it on his own, as far as decision making and leadership, and he has done that.”

Stover has proven to be a team leader, and the Greyhounds needed that in the final weeks of the season. But they are going to need perhaps Stover’s best effort ever against Penn State.

There is no tomorrow for Stover.

“I am going to get peppered,” Stover said. “I just want to play to the ability that I know I can play. When I am not thinking about anything, just seeing the ball and reacting, that’s when I am at my best. This season, every time I stepped on the field, I just never wanted to paint a regret.”

NCAA men’s quarterfinals

No. 8 seed Loyola Maryland vs. No. 1 seed Penn State

East Hartford, Conn.

Sunday, noon

TV: ESPNU

mike.preston@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MikePrestonSun

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