Loyola, Fairfield Jostle for First Place in ECAC
by Steven Russolillo | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online
It's only early April, but this weekend’s matchup of the
ECAC's elite is likely to have playoff implications.
No.14 Fairfield is prepping for arguably its most important game of the season, as it will host No. 9 Loyola Saturday afternoon at Lessing Field. The storylines for this one are plentiful: Both ECAC squads are undefeated in conference play, each comes into Saturday’s matchup on a winning streak and, since the ECAC doesn’t have a season-ending tournament, capturing the conference crown to secure an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament holds extra significance.
Fairfield (6-2, 3-0 ECAC) is currently riding a five-game winning streak, its longest since 2007. And not only are the Stags winning, but they’re winning convincingly. They’ve outscored their last two opponents by a combined 18 goals.
Fairfield has also played staggering defense, holding seven of its eight opponents to eight goals or less. The Stags are currently ranked fourth in the nation in scoring defense.
Fairfield’s early-season success has been a bit surprising, especially considering it was picked by league coaches to finish fourth in the ECAC preseason poll. But three consecutive wins in conference play have heightened expectations. A win over Loyola would put the Stags in control of their own destiny throughout the latter part of the regular-season schedule.
“Every game on our schedule is important,” said Fairfield head coach Andrew Copelan. “The Fairfield-Loyola game is always a bit intensified because of the Jesuit connection, and this year both teams are unbeaten in conference, so the rivalry becomes that much more heightened. But the winner of this game isn't guaranteed anything.”
Freshman attackman Sam Snow and junior midfielder Matt Plominski have guided Fairfield’s offense, registering 19 and 14 points, respectively, throughout the first half of the season.
But the defense has been the real story, with senior goalkeeper Joseph Marra boasting the second-best save percentage in Division I (.623) and the fourth-best goals against average (7.33).
Marra actually spent the 2006-07 year at Loyola before transferring to Fairfield, so Saturday’s game against his former school likely holds extra significance. But topping his former teammates won’t be easy. The Stags are 1-10 all-time against the Greyhounds, with their lone win coming in 2006.
“I don't think the past has anything to do with the present,” Copelan said. “Each team is different, and we are just trying to make sure this team reaches its fullest potential.”
Loyola (6-2, 4-0 ECAC) also comes into Saturday’s game on a hot streak, winner of its last three, including last weekend’s 11-9 home victory against Ohio State. Senior Collin Finnerty registered only one goal in the victory, which snapped a string of six straight games with three or more points. He currently leads Loyola with 17 goals and 24 points this season.
Charley Toomey, Loyola’s fifth-year head coach, told the Baltimore Sun that preventing the Stags from getting off to a fast start will be one of Loyola’s top priorities. Fairfield has outscored its opponents 17-6 in the opening quarter this season and holds a 43-18 advantage in the first half.
“We’ve always talked about winning the first five minutes, and over the years, we’ve done a good job of coming out and playing with a lot of energy -- whether it’s Fairfield or anyone,” Toomey told the Sun. “That’s definitely going to be a talking point for us this week. We need to challenge our guys to always win the first five minutes, but in particular, this weekend.”
This weekend’s road trip marks a big change for the Greyhounds, who’ve gotten used to playing at home. Their last road game -- at Bellarmine -- was on March 3, almost five weeks ago. Since then, they’ve had a neutral game at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore and hosted four straight.
Nevertheless, one can bet Loyola will be well-prepared for
Saturday’s game. The Greyhounds know the significance of
taking care of a conference rival, especially considering their
recent history. Loyola earned the ECAC crown in 2008 and shared the
title last year with UMass, but since it didn’t own the
tiebreaker against the Minutemen, it missed out on making the NCAA
tournament and failed to earn an at-large bid.
The Greyhounds' remaining schedule doesn’t get any easier, as they close the regular season with games at Georgetown, Hobart, Denver and Johns Hopkins.
Marching into Fairfield and registering a road victory would cement their status as the ECAC’s elite in the final month of the season.
Don’t forget about Denver in the discussion about the ECAC elite. The Pioneers (6-4, 1-0), who were picked to finish second in the ECAC preseason poll, defeated Hobart in their league opener last week and will look to remain undefeated in conference play when they host Bellarmine (6-4, 0-2)... The Knights had been on a three-game winning streak before falling to Fairfield, 13-4, last weekend... Quinnipiac (4-3, 1-2) will look to snap a two-game losing streak when it travels to face Air Force (1-7, 0-1). Quinnipiac couldn’t hold a four-goal lead last week, as Hartford scored five straight goals to defeat the Bobcats, 10-9... As for the Air Force, it registered its fourth consecutive loss last weekend, falling to Robert Morris, 13-7... Ohio State (5-5, 1-2) and Hobart (2-6, 0-3) square off Saturday, with Hobart looking to snap a four-game losing streak and the Buckeyes hoping to avenge an 11-9 loss to Loyola last weekend.
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