September 28, 2012

30 in 30: Who Are MD1 Darkhorses for 2013?

by Matt Forman | | Twitter

Loyola junior attackman Justin Ward said the Greyhounds run to the national title was defined by coaching, leadership and hunger.
© John Strohsacker/

Boy, looking back on preseason rankings can be humbling, can't it?

Take a peek at Lacrosse Magazine's men's preseason top-20 from February. National champion Loyola? Ranked 19th. Runner-up Maryland? Seventh. Memorial Day Weekend dancers Duke and Notre Dame? Second and Ninth, respectively. How about Colgate and Lehigh? Unranked.

What did everyone miss? And what lessons can we learn to predict darkhorses for 2013?

Before we answer both of those questions, let's take a step back and look big-picture. Last year was the first since 1975 the NCAA tournament semifinals did not include Johns Hopkins, Syracuse or Virginia. Two of the last three years a new title-winning team entered the fraternity of champions.

"I don't think last year was a story about Loyola," Greyhounds coach Charley Toomey said. "Last year you saw teams like Lehigh, like Colgate, who are really making an impact and winning big, big games. Colgate went out and beat an ACC team, Maryland, and that's the same team we beat in the national championship. You're seeing some of these teams that might [normally] be flying under the radar making big strides."

These are further signs of the larger-scale trend of the game's growth, even specifically at the Division I men's level. Bill Tierney led Denver's Canadian-infused roadshow to the final four. John Paul inspired Michigan to go varsity. Peter Baum, the Portland Trailblazer, won the Tewaaraton.

The momentum is seemingly as strong as the scene in "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory" when the Oompa-Loompas row a boat in the chocolate river, deep into the depths of Wonka's Factory. "The danger must be growing, 'cause the rowers keep on rowing. And they're certainly not showing any sign that they are slowing!"

As such, the sleeper, the underdog, the stalking horse — whatever you want to call them — stories shouldn't slow in 2013. In fact, they should be expected.

In Lacrosse Magazine's May issue, Gary Lambrecht detailed five ingredients in the "Formula for Cinderella." They included: 1) A faceoff ace; 2) Great goalkeeping; 3) Hot shooters; 4) Senior leadership; 5) Momentum.

As it turns out, Loyola paved its own path. Senior faceoff specialist J.P. Dalton won only 4-of-26 draws in the semifinals and finals combined. Underrated Jack Runkel stopped shots in May, but the Greyhounds' slide-averse scheme gave Runkel the kind of rubber he wanted to see. Eric Lusby, the NCAA tournament's scoring leader, converted 46.7 percent of shots into goals; everyone else was a combined 15.4 percent. Outside of Dalton, Lusby and defenseman Dylan Grimm, Loyola's leadership came from the underclassmen. And the Greyhounds' only loss happened right before postseason play — not exactly the definition of momentum.

So posed this question to Toomey and Loyola junior attackman Justin Ward: What were the pieces to the puzzle that fueled the Greyhounds' championship team?

"It sounds simple stupid, but the one thing our team did so well last year: They didn't look forward," Toomey said. "They took it game-by-game. They took each practice, and they enjoyed being around each other. They allowed the coaches to push them awful hard. It wasn't about the end result. It was really about the next opponent. They were the best team I ever had at understanding the task at hand. That team enjoyed being around each other. There was a special chemistry that developed."

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* '30 in 30' Debuts

Ward, whom Toomey described as "a captain, possibly without a 'C' on his chest, and probably a very good future coach," is a hard-working, blue-collar player who demands respect with his mere presence. Ward identified three crucial components to Loyola's success: coaching, leadership and hunger.

Ward on coaching: "We've got, no doubt in my mind, the best coaching staff in the country. I wouldn't want to play for any other person than coach Toomey. The way he motivates you every single day, the relationship he has with all his players — he's like a father figure to me. Coach [Matt] Dwan is one of the best defensive coaches in the country. He's very soft-spoken and doesn't need to yell. He's teaches. He cares about his defensemen very much. I have a great relationship with coach [Dan] Chemotti, our offensive coordinator. I can't say enough good things about him. Coach [Steve] Vaikness, who specializes on faceoffs, did a tremendous job with J.P. Dalton last year. We all thought the faceoff X would be one of our question marks. But the way J.P. was a warrior, and the way coach Vaikness trained him and our wing guys, was huge."

Ward on leadership: "My freshman year, we had good players who were captains. But at times, our team was lost. We weren't always together. That's not a reflection of our captains, but that's how the chemistry on the team was. Last year our leadership was unbelievable. Scott Ratliff, as a junior, was the best captain I ever played under. He was the best competitor I had ever seen. As a small-town kid from Georgia, he comes in and blows up on the scene. Whether it was talking trash, hitting somebody, motivating somebody in a lift, asking somebody how their family was doing — those were great leadership qualities. Another big thing was the retreat everybody talks about. Hearing your teammates' speak in a way you've never heard them speak before — There's nothing like it. It's like you have a teammate, and now he's your brother. I see all my teammates as brothers after that retreat."

Ward on hunger: "Whether it comes from the preseason rankings. Whether it comes from our coaches making us run for the 20 teams who were ranked ahead of us. Whether it comes from our coaches telling us that we're not as good as we think we are, and the country feels that way too. That drive, and knowing how hungry we were to play our next game, fueled us. After the Hopkins game, when we lost, all I wanted to do was get on the plane and fly to Denver [for the ECAC tournament]. That's the hunger everyone on the team had last year. It wasn't like, 'Oh man, we lost, let's feel bad for ourselves for a day or two.' It was, 'Yeah, we just took one of the biggest losses of the year. Let's go after the next game.'"

While we, the media, spend time talking about X's and O's, the guys playing/coaching the games worry about intangibles. Recognizing these are impossible to predict or quantify in September, it's still fun (if not fruitless) to make preseason predictions, right? Then we all really look crazy come Memorial Day.

So who fits the formula to surprise in 2013? Here are five teams that didn't make the season-end top-20 poll. (Tip of the cap to Penn State, Fairfield and Drexel, which were on the outside looking in at the NCAA tournament field despite solid seasons.)

Who is the most likely darkhorse in 2013?
St. John's
Ohio State

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5 Teams With a Chance to Surprise

1. St. John's

Led by Kieran McArdle, the headliner of my "2012 All Unsung Heroes" who totaled 60 points (28 goals, 32 assists), St. John's showed its potential in an 8-7 victory against then-RPI No. 1 Notre Dame in the Big East tournament. McArdle, now a junior, is a crafty dodger who can feed and finish. His classmate Kevin Cernuto led the Johnnies in scoring as a freshman and provides a strong second-fiddle. Senior goalie Jeff Lowman, who also could qualify for the All-Underrated distinction, posted a .556 save percentage last year. Close defensemen Joe Adonna and Mark DiFrangia, along with talented pole Dillon Ayers return in front of Lowman. Burning question: How will St. John's handle the losses of senior Terence Leach and Harry Kutner, a Loyola transfer?

2. Ohio State

Boasting national champion Loyola, Denver and fringe tournament team Fairfield, a case could be argued that the ECAC was the nation's best conference in 2012. Ohio State was the least-discussed team of the bunch, but don't let the Buckeyes' 8-7 record mislead: They beat Denver and Fairfield; they lost by one goal to Loyola and Notre Dame; and they lost by two to Virginia and three to Penn State. The nation's fourth-ranked defense, which allowed just 7.2 goals per game last year, starts between the pipes with stout goalie Greg Dutton (who's featured in Lacrosse Magazine's October installment of Give and Go). That unit and scheme should keep Ohio State in every game. But the Bucks also return four of their top five scorers, including legitimate Tewaaraton contender Logan Schuss and Canadian U-19er Jesse King. Burning question: How long will it take the defense to gel without Joe Bonanni and Keenan Ochwat?

3. Navy

It was a strange 2012 season for Navy, which lost to Jacksonville in mid-February (then let one slip away against North Carolina) but romped Johns Hopkins at the end of April, just two weeks before the Blue Jays received the No. 2 overall seed in the NCAA tournament. But there were clear signs of progress as Rick Sowell's first season wore on, even if the Midshipmen dropped a decision to Army amid a tough stretch against Colgate, Lehigh and Maryland. No doubt, the Patriot League will be a gauntlet in 2013. Charlotte slinger Tucker Hull and hometown kid Sam Jones form a dangerous duo. Burning question: In goal, how will Navy replace four-year starter R.J. Wickham, who gave the Mids a shot in every game?

4. Hofstra

Much like Ohio State, we'll say Hofstra follows the "one-goal game" rule which is a made-up tenet that reads: bad bounces even out over time. See Denver, 2012. The Pride lost six one-goal decisions last year, which was the difference for a talented enough team to scare people in the NCAA tournament. Canadian U-19er Adrian Sorichetti, Mr. Bowtie, compiled 38 points (24 goals, 14 assists) is one of the nation's best scoring threats out of the midfield. Hofstra will ask more of attackman Tyler Begley, who had a solid freshman campaign. The staple should be a senior-laden close defense, with Cody Solaja, Mark Mullen and Michael Hamilton returning, along with pole Ryan Rielly. Burning question: Who steps into the vacancy left by the graduation of goalie Andrew Gvozden?

5. Brown

The Ivy League will look plenty different in 2013, and Brown might benefit most. Princeton loses several key pieces from its defense, Yale won't have Matt Gibson and Deron Dempster, Harvard graduates all-time leading scorer Jeff Cohen, and Rob Pannell will be back at Cornell. The Bears, too, will miss the services of three senior attackmen, but it has plenty of pieces. Young bucks Sam Hurster and Nick Piroli can score, while nearly every major contributor on the defensive side is back, including goalie Will Round, defensemen Clay Del Prince, Phil Pierce, ground ball goblin Sam Ford and dynamic long-stick midfielder Roger Ferguson. Burning question: How big of a step forward can faceoff specialist Tommy Capone make?

Who will you have your eye on this fall ball? After you've voted in our poll, weigh in on Twitter @LacrosseMag using the hashtag #30in30.

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