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Preston: Towson lacrosse climbs to top, and hopes to avoid stumbles

Towson University’s men’s lacrosse program already has the perfect example of how not to handle success.

In 2017, the Tigers made it to the NCAA Division I Final Four. They were one of the big stories in college lacrosse and finished with a 12-5 record. A year later, Towson finished 7-8 and coach Shawn Nadelen had to cut several players because of off-field problems.

“It was the hangover from the year before,” said Alex Woodall, Towson’s senior faceoff specialist.

Now the Tigers (4-0) are ranked No. 1 for the first time in the program’s DI history by all three national polls and are hoping to stay there. The Tigers jumped up by beating previous No. 1 Loyola, 12-10, last Wednesday night.

“It feels really good, that’s for sure,” Towson goalie Tyler Canto said. “Going into the season, we were unranked, and based on the hard work we put in the offseason, I knew we had a special team coming in. It’s really satisfying and very rewarding for everyone on this team for all of the hard work we put in.

“We’ve got to make sure that we don’t get too cocky about it. We have to stay focused on the ultimate goal of winning the [Colonial Athletic Association] championship and going for a national championship. So we’ve got to definitely stay humble about it and just keep doing our thing all year and make sure that we stay focused the whole time.”

Keeping his players focused will become a top priority for Nadelen, in his eighth season. Traditional favorites such as Johns Hopkins, Maryland and Syracuse are used to being perched at or near the top, especially early in the season.

Local teams such as Loyola and Towson usually had to work their way up during the season. But the college game has more parity now and the talent pool is spread out. Smaller schools are finding their way to the top earlier in the season.

But with success comes mind games. Those 18- to 22-year-olds don’t always handle it well.

“Sometimes it is more of a curse than a blessing,” Loyola coach Charlie Toomey said of the early No. 1 ranking. “Coaches can talk about it and they can control things to a degree inside and outside of the locker room, but it really comes down to senior leadership. These guys listen to their peers and the leadership has to be focused. They are the ones who drive the bus. Obviously, we didn’t do something well.”

It’s been an exciting week for Towson. The student body was elated after the win against Loyola and winning becomes contagious. The university gets more exposure, which created more excitement among the faculty and alumni.

But Nadelen has to regain control. Towson plays Jacksonville and Cornell this weekend in Charlotte, N.C.

“This is exciting for the team,” Nadelen said. “They’ve played well enough to this point to earn the opportunity and I’m proud for the guys. In regards to the ranking and build-up, we’ve been here before but at the end of the day the ranking doesn’t mean anything until the end of the season on Memorial Day.”

According to Toomey, whose Greyhounds won the national championship in 2012, a major key is the leadership from the captains. Nadelen agrees and says he has gotten that from captains Brendan Sunday, Zach Goodrich, Jimmie Wilkerson and Woodall, who have provided more leadership than any other group in Nadelen’s tenure.

It is hard to see Towson going off its present course. Nadelen was a blue-collar long-stick midfielder at Hopkins, and the Tigers have the same work ethic. They aren’t going to beat you with finesse and style but they are big, physical and they grind opponents down.

“Nothing changes and hopefully we’ve done a good job communicating that to our team and what our focus needs to be,” Nadelen said. “We have to continue to work hard, prepare and work even harder now on game day. Our fundamentals and daily discipline, that’s can’t change. That’s in our DNA.

“We’ve gotten to this point because of the time, effort and sacrifice they have put in. Now you’re going to have pressure but that is a good thing. You’re going to have to face pressure to accomplish the goals we set earlier in the season. That pressure might come down to having to win the final conference game to get into the tournament. It’s a great thing because it helps teach life lessons. When you face it and work through it, it’s an opportunity to get stronger.”

A lot of the team’s success begins with Woodall. At 6 feet and 215 pounds, he is one of the best faceoff specialists in the country, having won 72 of 97. Towson also has an All-American middie in Goodrich and one of the best defensemen in the country in Koby Smith, nicknamed KoBeast. Not only is he a great one-on-one defender, but he has great vision in the transition game.

And remember, he is a defenseman.

“We don’t have offensive players — middies or attackman — who can get the ball where it needs to go and with his instincts, the more you watch him, the more impressed you are,” Nadelen said.

Nadelen has also gotten strong consistent play from Canto, who has 56 saves on 142 shots faced this season. But when you watch Towson play, you definitely notice the size of attackmen Sunday (6-5, 200) Brody McClean (6-3, 210) and Timmy Monahan (6-2, 205).

That group can be intimidating. They’ve combined for 33 of the team’s 55 goals this season.

The Tigers get a little something special from every phase of the game, which makes them good. In the preseason, Towson was virtually ignored by everyone.

Now, they are No. 1.

“I’m sure teams came in to play us — like Hopkins and Georgetown — not thinking that we were going to be as good as we were since we were unranked and playing these ranked teams. I think we’ve definitely surprised some people, but I wasn’t surprised because I knew we had that in us, and now we’re going to try to keep that rolling,” Canto said.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MikePrestonSun

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