March 11, 2014

Tuesdays with Corey: Stories from Coast to Coast

by Corey McLaughlin | | Twitter | McLaughlin Archive

Villanova faceoff man Thomas Croonquist is an X-factor for the Wildcats, who, with a 1-4 record, have a big showdown Friday night with top-ranked Maryland. (Kevin P. Tucker)

Villanova's early-season defeats have all been a bit different.

In the season-opening triple-overtime loss at Lehigh, turnovers were the main culprit, 29 of them. That stat was cleaned up for the next game, an 11-10 overtime win against Drexel, to date the Wildcats' only victory of the season. But it was a win not without consequences. One of the team's X-factors, faceoff man Thomas Croonquist, was injured toward the end, and did not play a full, nor effective next game, which turned out to be a 11-9 loss to Delaware. Villanova couldn't get enough possessions.

Then came a heartbreaker on Saturday. The 'Cats led Penn, which had beaten Denver a week earlier, for most of the game, except the all-important final two minutes. The Quakers showed off their trademark transition play and scored the final five goals to win 12-11.

"We're disappointed with our record," Villanova coach Mike Corrado said Monday evening after a welcome, sunny practice outside Philadelphia. "Particularly against Penn the other night, we played well for a lot of that game and they got us at the end. It hasn't been one consistent thing."

Villanova has been here before. One win and too many losses and a date with top-ranked Maryland upcoming, as it has Friday night in College Park, Md.

The same scenario played out exactly one season ago, except the game was played on a Saturday night at Villanova. The Terps won 10-7, which dropped Villanova's record to 1-5. But then the Wildcats followed with a win over Syracuse and ended up winning the Big East regular season title, although they missed the NCAA tournament. Those early-season losses caught up with them, finishing with a sub-.500 record at 7-8 despite reaching the Big East title game. They were ineligible for national post-season play.

Now Villanova is 1-3. They are in that deadful "also considered" line in the national top-20 rankings. No one wants to almost make the cut; just barely get the call that you've won the lottery. There is a silver lining.

"These early games against good competition have hopefully gotten us ready to play a team like Maryland," Corrado said. "We've done it before, we just have to go down and play the best we can and see what happens. You get an opportunity to play the No. 1 team in the country this Friday night. There's not much better than that. We'll try to put 60 minutes together. We probably had 57 good minutes the last game."

The Wildcats have managed graduation losses — including their entire starting attack from last season — and injuries, starting with John Kluh's season-ending ACL tear in practice in the fall. Kluh was Villanova's top returning midfielder. Two other members of the sophomore class, attackman Tim Mulrenan and midfielder Jack Curran, missed all of fall with injuries and are just now getting back up to full speed. Mulrenan scored three goals Saturday against Penn.

Moreover, talented freshman attackman Devin McNamara has sat out the last three games with a muscle pull and remains questionable for the Maryland game, Corrado said. Senior Kevin O'Neil, a converted midfielder, is the team's leading scorer with seven goals and three assists.

All the injuries led the coaching staff to go with a Plan B on its man-up unit, throwing in versatile long-stick midfielder John LoCascio on the attack. LoCascio, who was invited to Team USA tryouts over the summer, has three assists and has taken three shots in addition to being the wrecking ball he always has on defense, with 28 ground balls and 11 caused turnovers in four games and sparking transition offense. He even stepped in taking six faceoffs when Croonquist was 4-for-15 against Delaware.

"Overall he's been outstanding," Corrado said of LoCascio. "He's playing man-up, man-down, wings on faceoffs. We're using him a lot, that's for sure. He's doing a nice job with it."

LoCascio is one reason why Villanova ranks in the top-10 nationally in ground balls, as does its opponent this week.

"They have really good sticks everywhere, from middle of the field to back-end to attackmen," Maryland coach John Tillman said Tuesday morning. "Those ground balls are going to be critical. They do an excellent job of pushing in transition." He then noted LoCascio playing on man-up and the fact that fellow Villanova defenseman Chris Piccirilli has taken six shots this year.

Croonquist vs. Charlie Raffa, also one of the nation's best, at the faceoff X will be a key match up watch. Villanova's senior taker is 53 percent on the year, but was a very effective 18-for-27 against Penn in a sign he's back in healthy form. Now comes the task, as a team, of turning those close losses into wins.

"They just gotta move on to the next game" Corrado said. "The goal is to keep getting better, and I'm seeing it."

California, Georgia games bring out the fans

Not only did Denver-Notre Dame and Syracuse-St. John's games in California and Georgia, respecitvely, draw more than 5,500 fans each, but youth clinics the day after the games were also a success. (Notre Dame Lacrosse)

What a great thing to hear and see: Crowds of more than 5,500 each in Georgia and southern California to watch Syracuse-St. John's and Denver-Notre Dame, respectively.

Kudos to the LB3 group for putting together the event at Kennesaw State University just outside Atlanta, and to the group headed by Corona del Mar (Calif.) High coach G.W. Mix and Adrenaline for the first Pacific Coast Shootout in Costa Mesa, Calif.

An announced crowd of 5,703 watched Syracuse beat St. John's 14-8, and 5,870 packed the stands at Orange Coast College and saw Denver best Notre Dame, 10-7. Both events included youth clinics, helped in part by participating teams. Those will hopefully leave an impact behind on the developing lacrosse areas.

According to the Syracuse athletic department, nearly 500 kids from Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Alabama and Tennessee took part in a clinic Sunday morning at Kennesaw State.

"It's huge for the lacrosse community down here," former Syracuse All-American and LB3 founder Liam Banks said of the weekend. "You talk about kids having some type of trigger or something that inspires them to improve and be better. This is that moment. You have the most storied program in the country coming to play down here and the lacrosse community came out in great numbers yesterday to support what we are doing."

The Georgia game also bodes well for the case of brining a potential MLL franchise to Atlanta. The same venue at Kennesaw State will host the pro league's championship game in August.

G.W. Mix, the father of Notre Dame attackman Ryan Mix, organized the California event, which also included an MCLA game featuring UC Santa Barbara and Loyola Marymount. UCSB's roster included Ryan's younger brother, Casey. Notre Dame stuck around for a youth clinic on Sunday as well.

Related: I ended up catching the finish of Denver-Notre Dame via The Lacrosse Network's well-produced live broadcast on my phone. Nice work all around. The crowd looked great, as did the action on the field.

Loyola 2012 all over again?

It didn't take long for comparisons between this year's Loyola squad and the 2012 national championship edition Greyhounds to come to mind during and after the program's 14-7 win over Duke on Sunday night.

There's a nice blend of seniors and budding underclassmen. They started somewhat off the radar. (Lacrosse Magazine ranked Loyola 11th in the preseason this year and No. 19 in 2012). There was even a senior midfielder with the last name Sawyer dialing up pinpoint 13-yard shots from the wing. Matt Sawyer, younger brother of former Tewaaraton Award finalist Mike, scored a career-high six goals against Duke. His older brother did the exact same thing against the Blue Devils during a home March game in 2012.

Most every coach would not be doing their job if they didn't say they were optimistic heading into the season, but Loyola coach Charley Toomey said in the fall he had a good feeling about this group.

"It reminds me a lot of that team that just graduated," he said then. "They played as freshman and we watched them grow up. The good news is we have some senior leadership. I'm very optimistic about this group."

He talked about how much he enjoyed being around this team again Sunday night after the win.

This team might be better than 2012, when you consider the offense is veteran and the defense is too, with a pair of starting sophomores from that team, goalie Jack Runkel and defenseman Joe Fletcher now seniors. The post-game press conference answers to questions about the defensive performance Sunday sounded nearly identical to those during Loyola's run to its first national title two years ago, with Runkel gobbling up shots from angles and distances that are easier to stop.

Meanwhile, Fletcher has developed into a centerpiece of a disciplined unit that can play man and zone effectively. It seems the rest of the defense has picked up Fletcher's fundamentally sound approach and believes in what it can do for you and a team (i.e. stay in the running for the U.S. men's national team).

Faceoffs weren't the strength for Loyola in 2012 and they are not right now, but as a unit, Loyola freshman Graham Savio and guys off the wing did a great job neutralizing Duke faceoff man Brendan Fowler as much as possible. What this team lacks from 2012 — the headliners of its defensive midfield unit in the form of short-stick Josh Hawkins and long-stick Scott Ratliff — still remains in part with second-round MLL draft pick Pat Laconi, a sophomore contributor to that 2012 unit and a player that forced at least two turnovers Sunday night with well-executed checks at the top of the zone. He's one of the best nationally at his position and was the first short-stick d-middie taken in the MLL draft.

It would help if there was another established weapon in the midfield for Justin Ward to feed, a la the Eric Lusby/Mike Sawyer combo in 2012, but that's nit-picking on a team now ranked second in the country. Redshirt freshman Brian Sherlock and sophomore Tyler Albrecht will continue to develop, and Nikko Pontrello is a threat on attack that wasn't there in 2012. Loyola's offense moved the ball around and did a tremendous job of not allowing Duke's defenders to get on their hands enough and disrupt the number of passing and shooting chances needed. And the Greyhounds shot lights out.

Do not discount that Loyola was a slim margin away from beating Duke in last year's NCAA tournament first-round in Durham. What could have been if the Greyhounds got past that one?

Fletcher, Duprey projecting well

New York Lizards coach Joe Spallina watched Sunday's Duke-Loyola game in person and came away thinking his top draft pick, Loyola defenseman Joe Fletcher, looked a lot like two-time MLL defensive player of the year Lee Zink.

New York Lizards coach Joe Spallina was in the announced crowd of 3,912 for Loyola-Duke, watching his pair of first-round draft picks in Loyola defenseman Joe Fletcher and Duke long-stick midfielder Luke Duprey. Spallina liked what he saw.

He said Fletcher was the difference in the game, limiting Duke attackman Wolf to just one goal, and Fletcher reminded him of two-time MLL defensive player of the year Lee Zink. Both Fletcher and Zink have survived two rounds of cuts in the Team USA roster selection process for this July's FIL World Championship. Spallina likened Duprey to his brother, six-time MLL champ Brian Spallina, and Nicky Polanco, both MLL veteran defenseman known for their toughness, tenacity and making opposing players think twice about coming over the middle. Duprey could be a perfect fit in the pro league.

"Both are exactly what we lack," Spallina said about the Lizards, "Defensive game-changers."

Three Stars

An absence of the Thompsons here, even with 22 combined points against UMass on Saturday, but they should be a given as weekly stars at this point. (The New York Times also thought their story warranted coverage.) Let's give the defense some love.

Joe Fletcher, Loyola, Sr. D
As mentioned, Fletcher was a difference-maker in Loyola's win over Duke. Not only his for his own skills, but having him anchor the defense gives a level of comfort to the unit. Watching him play against college attackmen after going through the Team USA tryout process almost makes it seem unfair for the opposition.

Christian Knight, Cornell, Fr. G
After Cornell allowed 14 goals in an overtime win at Michigan, the Big Red coaching staff decided last Tuesday against Canisius to split halves with Brennan Donville, the starter heading into the season, and Knight. Then Knight, a true freshman out of national power Boys' Latin (Md.), was told Wednesday he may start between the pipes against Virginia on Saturday. Knight started his college career as best you can. He made 15 saves in his first start, including six in the first quarter to keep the Big Red within striking distance of Virginia early. The Big Red settled in, went on a 9-0 run, and won 12-9. "To see a freshman goalie go against one of the top offenses in the game and do what he did today, was just awesome for Christian," Cornell interim coach Matt Kerwick said after the game, also mentioning that Knight's even-keeled personality fit the situation well.

Gunnar Waldt, Bryant, So. G
Bryant, the NEC favorite, broke into the LM Top 20 this week and Waldt is a big reason why, literally. He's 5-foot-11 and 230 pounds so he takes up a lot of net. Waldt made 17 saves in a 12-6 win over Drexel. The Bryant defense allowed just one second-half goal to the Dragons, a tall task. Waldt figures to be in the discussion for top goalies nationally for years to come. He current leads Division I with a 67.9 save percentage. He started 12 games as a redshirt freshman last season.

Looking Ahead

The top games to watch this week: (All times Eastern)

1. No. 6 North Carolina (4-1) at No. 4 Duke (4-2), 2 p.m. Saturday
Duke has dropped two in a row to top-five teams and welcomes Tobacco Road rival North Carolina to Koskinen Stadium. A win would boost the Tar Heels' credibility, as they come in seventh in the national composite rankings after a two-goal win over Princeton.

2. No. 11 Syracuse (3-2) at No. 3 Johns Hopkins (5-0), Noon Saturday
One of the oldest and richest rivalries in the sport renews at Homewood Field on Saturday afternoon. And as usual, this one has great meaning for both sides as non-conference wins are at a premium.

3. No. 12 Penn (3-1) at No. 13 Princeton (2-2), 3 p.m. Saturday
The Ivy League has shown great depth, with four teams currently in the Lacrosse Magazine Top 20. These are two of the top three and will figure prominently in the conference race and post-season tournament.

4. No. 18 Yale (2-1) at No. 10 Cornell (5-0), 1 p.m. Saturday
The second of two big Ivy showdowns features a pair of NCAA tournament teams from a year ago looking to forge their identities for this season.

5. No. 5 Virginia (6-1) at No. 9 Notre Dame (2-2), 5 p.m. Sunday
Another first for the ACC crowd. This one will be shown live on ESPNU.

Honorable mention: Bucknell at North Carolina, 4 p.m. Tuesday; Lehigh at Yale, 7 p.m. Tuesday; UMass at Penn State, 1 p.m. Saturday; Bryant at Albany, 1 p.m. Saturday; Army at Loyola, 1 p.m. Saturday; Georgetown at St. John's, 1 p.m. Saturday; Delaware at Hofstra, 3 p.m. Saturday; Ohio State at Denver, 3 p.m. Saturday; Villanova at Maryland, 7 p.m. Saturday.

End Lines

Congratulations are in order for Richmond, which earned its first NCAA win on Saturday with a 12-11 win against Vermont. The game was held in Durham, N.C. as part of the King of Spring Lacrosse Classic and it benefitted the Lead the Way Fund, which supports disabled U.S. Army Rangers and families of Rangers who have died, been injured or are currently serving. Spiders head coach Dan Chemotti played at Duke with Jimmy Regan, an Army Ranger killed in 2007 in Iraq. Richmond on Saturday wore camouflage printed jerseys.

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