April 27, 2014

Loyola Takes Patriot League Crown from Lehigh

by Corey McLaughlin | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter | McLaughlin Archive

Freshman midfielder Brian Sherlock chipped in two goals as "everyone was touching the ball," Loyola senior attackman and co-captian Justin Ward said, in the Greyhounds' 16-7 win over Lehigh in Sunday's Patriot League final.

BALTIMORE — Top-ranked Loyola completed its first foray into the Patriot League by hoisting the league's championship trophy and donning free hats after a comprehensive 16-7 win over two-time defending Patriot champ Lehigh on Sunday afternoon at Loyola's Ridley Athletic Complex.

A different schedule this year? Yes. New opponents to game plan against? Sure. But what was the main difference this season, compared to the Greyhounds' previous in the ECAC?

Louder, said senior co-captain Justin Ward. Loyola recognized that the last time they played Lehigh, way back on March 1, a game they won by a nearly identical 14-7 score.

"The way the game was played today," Ward said Sunday, "some people may call it physical. Some people may call it chippy. That's something we realized as soon as we got into this conference. ... We went to Lehigh and realized that this conference is a little more physical, a little louder than the ECAC. That's something we adapted to. It's sweet when we can do this stuff on our turf. We take pride in winning here, protecting our house."

It was physical. It was chippy. With 12 penalties called between both sides and a number of hard hits in the midfield. Loyola (14-1) even got in on the emotional end of it, after an apparent knee-to-knee hit sidelined speedy freshman Brian Sherlock in the fourth quarter. He got up and walked off the field under his own power, and fired up the Greyhounds bench as he approached. Loyola led 13-5 at the time. But that was generally out of character.

"Quiet confidence," is how Ward described Loyola fitting into the Patriot League this year. "We know how we take care of our business. We like to not associate with that, in terms of the barking and the hooting and hollering before the game, all that stuff. We just like to stay within our team, stay together throughout the game and handle anything that's thrown at us. Take the adversity and run with it."

Run they did. With a trademark blend of early offense and half-field sets, Loyola dissected the Lehigh defense, totaling 46 shots, including 21 in a key second quarter where the offense heated up with five goals to give the Hounds a 7-3 halftime lead.

Midfielder Matt Sawyer finished with four goals and Brian Schultz three goals and two assists. Three others had two goals each and another three chipped in one apiece. Ward was one of them, also racking up three assists. Nikko Pontrello scored two of Loyola's first three goals and had two assists.

"Everyone was touching the ball," said Ward, who tied the Partiot single-season assist record of 48 set by Bucknell's David Dickson next year.

And on the defensive end, senior goalie Jack Runkel gobbled up 15 saves and close defenseman Joe Fletcher and David Manning limited Dan Taylor and Patrick Corbett, who scored one goal each through the first three quarters before finding more success against reserves later in the game.

In the possession game, Loyola's faceoff man Graham Savio was 9-for-20, but Lehigh turned the ball over 16 times to the Greyhounds' 13, six of which game in the first quarter before they dropped the hammer on No. 18 Lehigh, whose season is all but officially over with a 13-5 record and not a strong enough NCAA tournament at-large resume. Loyola won 14 ground balls in the second quarter alone.

"They're a really good team. They are No. 1 in the country for a reason," Lehigh coach Kevin Cassese said. "They made the plays when the game was being decided that needed to be made. We didn't come up with enough of them."

Lehigh goalie Matt Poillon finished with 14 saves.

"They have everything. They have one of the best feeders in the game. They have a couple of the best shooters in the game. They have guys that can break you down off the dodge. That's all in their top-six offensive players. They have a little bit of everything. If you take one thing away, they have the opportunity to get you somewhere else. If they're clicking on all cylinders, they are going to find the openings."

The Greyhounds' knowns are these: on attack, with Ward pulling the strings; defense, with Fletcher drawing the top one-on-one assignments weekly, a veteran goalie, with Runkel often getting the shots he likes to see; and in general a play-fast mentality helped by talented short- and long-stick midfielders such as Pat Laconi, whom Cassese said could start on offensive midfield for most teams.

A pair of potential future stars showed off the capability of the latter units on Sunday. The freshman Sherlock chipped in two goals and another rookie, versatile midfielder Ryan Fournier out of the Hill Academy in Ontario, finished with one assist but many other active plays, with both a short- and long-stick.

On back-to-back Lehigh possessions in the third quarter, Fournier picked off a Taylor pass, went right to the cage and misfired on a shot with his long-stick. On the next, he forced a turnover just inside the restraining line, knocked the ball to himself, and sparked a transition play that ended with a Schultz goal from Pontrello. Fournier's assist came with a short-stick in the fourth quarter. Freshman long-stick midfielder Jason Crane also played a bunch.

Was it remindful of 2012, when Loyola won its last league championship — against Denver in the ECAC — and went on to win its first national title? It's been a theme Greyhounds coach Charley Toomey has sounded since the fall, when he said the blend of veterans and younger guys reminded him of the championship team.

"Absolutely. They bring energy. These guys, I joke around with them, they're old men," Toomey said, sitting next to Ward, Runkel and the junior Pontrello in the

"Quiet confidence. ... We just like to stay within our team, stay together throughout the game and handle anything that's thrown at us. Take the adversity and run with it."

— Loyola senior attackman Justin Ward

post-game press conference. "They've been through a lot of wars for us and something you have to look towards a guy like Sherlock to bring that energy into the locker room. That's exactly what he does."

"Ryan Fournier between the lines, but also Jason Crane. Those two guys are getting better and we need them to get better this time of year. They are brining energy to the program. We're excited that the are starting to create an identity for themselves because I think it would be easy to say that our identity with our attack and probably our defense. ... It's nice to see some young guys making out there."

Because it's always on to the next one, afterward Toomey and players were asked several times about Saturday's upcoming game back at Loyola, against Charles Street rival Johns Hopkins, their last game before Selection Sunday.

It's a final chance to boost the NCAA tournament resume for seeding purposes, now that they are officially in the big show with a conference championship. Toomey said he's spoken to the team about possibly needing a win to ensure a top-eight seed and a May Madness home game. Even with the No. 1 rank in the country in the human polls, Loyola's other criteria, such as strength of schedule, isn't as high as some other top-10 teams with none of the seven conference foes it beat this year in NCAA at-large contention. Not that they needed any extra motivation.

"It's the Charles Street rivalry," Runkel said. "Every time we see Hopkins on our schedule, we're pretty excited. It's a game at the end of the year we circle on our schedule. It's always been their Senior Day or our Senior Day. We see them often off the lacrosse field as well. They are that close to us. I can walk to Hopkins from where I live. They are there and they know that we're there, too."

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