April 25, 2012

Lambrecht: Loyola Fired Up For Neighborhood Rival Hopkins

by Gary Lambrecht | LaxMagazine.com

Eric Lusby (above) and Mike Sawyer lead a Loyola offense that aims for 40-plus shots per game. Faceoff man and co-captain J.P. Dalton provides leadership. "Being ranked No. 1 was never one of our goals," Dalton said. "We're not going to be a team that underestimates any team."
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

There are many reasons why Loyola University is riding high this week as the top-ranked team in Division I men's lacrosse. As the Greyhounds await an invasion by No. 10 Johns Hopkins, the neighborhood rival that is staggering through April in stunning fashion, what is not to like about the way undefeated Loyola has taken care of its spring chores thus far?

The Greyhounds, who on Saturday will play host to the rowdiest crowd in the three-season history of the sparkling Ridley Athletic Complex, have it all going on.

With attackmen Mike Sawyer and Eric Lusby spearheading the charge, Loyola (12-0) has an aggressive, hard-cutting, unselfish offense that plays fast and aims to surpass the 40-shot mark each week.

With close defensemen Reid Acton, Joe Fletcher and Dylan Grimm setting the tone, the Greyhounds are equally comfortable in six-on-six, suffocation mode or blasting out in transition. With LSM Scott Ratliff leading the game's most explosive rope unit, Loyola is a fast-break clinic waiting to happen.

The Greyhounds are a study in balance, creativity and tenacity, with soon-to-be All-Americans sprinkled throughout their roster. They take a ton of good shots, devour ground balls and live to turn you over. With all due respect to the Atlantic Coast Conference and second-ranked UMass – the game's only other unbeaten squad – Loyola has been the sport's most consistently entertaining team to watch this year.

But the real reason Loyola has its campus buzzing, beyond its 12.4-goal average and its ability to strike anytime from anywhere, is the way this team "gets it" under seventh-year coach Charley Toomey and his staff. For clarification, listen to senior faceoff man and co-captain J.P. Dalton, who pretty much completes the spine of the Loyola operation as one of the team's policemen.

"This is the most mature team I've ever been on," Dalton said. "Our success mostly has to do with discipline. We have lots of fun, but there's not a lot of goofing off. We have an objective every day here. We feed off of each other, knowing we're here to do a job."

Dalton, the younger brother of ex-Maryland faceoff star and co-captain Will Dalton and the son of Steve Dalton, who played for the Baltimore Colts and Washington Redskins in the 1970s, personifies the just-do-your-job mentality that has carried the Greyhounds as much as Sawyer's 40 goals or Lusby's 32.

Consider that Dalton, who came from St. Mary's High School in Annapolis, Md., spent three years plugging away patiently behind Loyola's great faceoff specialist John Schiavone, who graduated last year.

Coming into last fall, Dalton wasn't sure, beyond his probable job as the team's primary faceoff man – he has won 54.7 percent of his draws and contributed eight goals and four assists – what his role would be. He was certain of one job he craved.

"It's never been about what position I play or how many minutes I get. I really knew I wanted to lead this team," said Dalton, who was voted into the co-captain seat by his peers, and set about making an imprint on the Greyhounds in the locker room.

In Dalton's eyes, the Greyhounds, even though they lacked some of the power-packed talent that marks this year's group, did not extract the most out of that talent in the recent past. Whether it was an off-the-field distraction, or players now and then going through the motions in practice or in the weight room, something was lacking enough to cost Loyola when it counted.

In Dalton's eyes, that lost edge helped to explain why the Greyhounds lost to Air Force last year and had failed repeatedly to get over the hump against teams such as ECAC rival Denver or Hopkins. Of course, the Blue Jays have won 46 of 49 games over Loyola. Those include two, one-goal decisions in the past three seasons.

That lack of discipline, Dalton surmised, helped to explain why Loyola, during his time there, had lost 15 games, missed two NCAA tournaments and failed in the first round in 2010.

Dalton's approach has been pretty simple, and direct. Confront the offender immediately, and make him accountable to his teammates. That problem has dissolved this spring.

"I don't like to be the bad guy, but I've never been afraid of it. It doesn't bother me if somebody is dropping the ball too much or missing too many shots. The thing that bothers me is [a lack of] effort and attitude," Dalton said.

"Some [older teammates] in the past wouldn't say anything, because they didn't want conflict. If I get a hint of it, like if somebody is whining about having to practice that day, I'll drop the hammer right away. To me, it's either come to work or go home."

"I feel like J.P. is just a tough, tough kid who has willed that [quality] onto this team," Toomey said. "He'll pull a kid aside and say 'Hey, we don't do things that way.' After the Duke game [a season-defining, 13-8 rout on March 10], more guys started coming in to watch film after practice. I don't worry about distractions with this group at all. We've learned how to take care of our business."

That they have. The Greyhounds, ranked No. 19 by Lacrosse Magazine in the preseason, have done it with explosive scoring – a 10-0 second-half knockout against Air Force comes to mind, as well as a game-ending 5-1 run in their recent 12-9 win at Denver. And the Greyhounds have grinded with defense and transition opportunities. Think of their 8-7 survival over Ohio State and the 4-0 game-ending run that pushed them past pesky Fairfield on the road by an 8-6 count.

Whatever happens on Saturday, Dalton gave assurance that the Greyhounds are in no way taking Hopkins (9-3) lightly, in no way paying too much attention to the Blue Jays' 1-3 record in April and their shocking, 8-2 loss at Navy last week and their offense that has suddenly forgotten how to score.

"Everyone is waiting for Loyola to fail. We've heard the critics say we're not as good as people say we are or as good as we think we are," Dalton said.

"Being ranked No. 1 was never one of our goals. It's all about the opponent coming up next. We've wanted to treat every game like a business trip. We wanted to be tough for 60 minutes at Denver. If you're not ready to play, whether it's against Bellarmine or Albany, you might get hurt. We're not going to be a team that underestimates any team, especially a team like Hopkins."

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