March 7, 2014

NCAA Notes: Greyhounds Solid Start to the Test

by Gary Lambrecht | | Twitter | Lamhrecht Archive

Loyola has looked sharp so far, but faces a big test with Duke coming to town this weekend. (John Strohsacker/

So many things are going well for the fourth-ranked Loyola Greyhounds.

Ever since the Greyhounds awakened in their season opener with a 9-0, fourth-quarter run at Virginia and nearly stole the game from the Cavaliers before falling in overtime, the Loyola offense has hummed. During their current, four-game winning streak, the Greyhounds are averaging 15 goals and have outscored opponents by an average of nine.

Junior attackman Nikko Pontrello (19 goals on 50 percent shooting) is abusing defenses. Senior attackman Justin Ward (15 assists) has been masterful at quarterback. The midfield, which lost five of its top seven scorers to graduation, is getting huge contributions from both lines, including sophomore Tyler Albrecht (eight goals), redshirt freshman Brian Sherlock (10 points) and senior Kevin Ryan (11 goals).

Defensively, the six-on-six and transition games have been sharp, evidenced by senior defensive-midfielder Pat Laconi's four goals. Senior defenseman Joe Fletcher is shutting down everything in sight. Senior goalie Jack Runkel erased a one-game funk at Virginia by saving 66.2 percent of the shots he's seen since.

But on Monday, two days after the Greyhounds turned their first true Patriot League test into a surprising, 14-7 beat-down at Lehigh, there were no backslaps as the players reviewed their work in Bethlehem, Pa., before turning their attention to Sunday night's nationally-televised showdown against visiting, No. 3 Duke.

"After Lehigh, we felt pretty good. We'd doubled up the two-time, defending league champion on their turf," Ward said. "But Monday's film session was not pretty. We recognized our errors. Because we're so young, we can't rest on what we've done."

"Watching the Lehigh film made it feel like a loss," added Fletcher. "It brought me back to how much we have to improve. There is definitely a lot to work on."

It's still early March, but Sunday's matchup of the last two national championship teams should provide a compelling snapshot of the 2014 season. The game will air live on CBS Sports Network and will also have live in-game and post-game coverage.

How will Loyola freshman faceoff specialist Graham Savio (.593) fare against Duke senior All-American Brendan Fowler? Which rope unit, Duke's led by long-stick midfielder Luke Duprey or Loyola's sparked by Laconi, will make the most impact? Will Runkel outplay talented sophomore Luke Aaron? Will the twilight that follows the 6 p.m. starting time affect one goalie more than the other?

It will be fun to watch Fletcher tracking senior attackman Jordan Wolf. "You can't relax against [Wolf]," Fletcher said. "He makes one move and he's gone."

It will be fun to watch what the Blue Devils defense does to disrupt the sharing and pinpoint passing that defines Loyola's offense right now. And what will Duke do to contain Pontrello?

"Nikko can score in a multitude of ways," Ward said. "He's ambidextrous. He's one of our best outside shooters from 15 yards in. He's really good at getting open inside, where I've found him a lot. He attacks his matchup probably more than any other guy I've played with."

Another Solid Start for UMass

The Minutemen of UMass have grown accustomed to good starts under 20-year coach Greg Cannella. For the third time in the past four years and for the 12th time overall, UMass is 4-0. What makes it notable this year is it's happening around a youth movement in Amherst.

There are five seniors and two redshirt juniors on the roster. Twenty-four of the team's 37 players are freshman and sophomores. The impact underclassmen are all over the place.

"It's been refreshing to coach such a hungry group that wants to do more and know more," Cannella said.

Defensive starters include sophomores Kyle Karaska, James and Bob Fahey (not related) and freshman Aaron Madaisky. Redshirt sophomore goalie Zach Oliveri (5.35 GAA, .682) is the anchor of a unit that has allowed 5.5 goals per game on 18.2 percent shooting, and held Brown to two goals in a 13-goal blowout on Saturday.

Freshman attackman Grant Consoletti (four points) and midfielder Jeff George (seven points) are among the newcomers who have contributed.

But freshman attackman Nick Mariano (team-high 14 goals) is the big story at UMass. He's shooting 52 percent, has scored more than one third of the Minutemen's 41 goals and is playing with an upperclassmen's command of the game.

"For a young player, [Mariano] has done a really good job of letting the game come to him," Cannella said. "He's scoring in transition, dodging, getting inside off-ball. He has a desire to be good, and he's not afraid to lead."

Injury Woes Haven't Slowed Carolina

Considering the injury problems it has faced in 2014, No. 7 North Carolina (3-1) is in decent shape as it heads into the meat of its schedule. The Tar Heels, coming off of Saturday's 11-10 loss against No. 6 Notre Dame, travel to 12th-ranked Princeton on Friday night.

The temporary loss of senior faceoff man R.G. Keenan, who has missed three games with an undisclosed lower body injury and is expected back within two weeks, hurt Carolina against the Irish. Frankie Kelly and Stephen Kelly combined to go 8-for-25, mostly against Liam O'Connor, as the Tar Heels played too much defense while blowing an 8-3, third-quarter lead.

Attackman Jimmy Bitter and defensive midfielder Ryan Creighton are back in the lineup after missing a combined three games with injuries.

The Tar Heels gave up four man-down goals and four more in transition against Notre Dame. With the next month featuring games against Duke, Harvard, Maryland, Hopkins and Virginia, the sooner Keenan returns, the better.

The Carolina offense, led by Joey Sankey (10, 6), has shown impressive depth at midfield and good scoring balance overall. And it will need more possessions against the gauntlet that awaits the Tar Heels.

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