May 30, 2012

UnCensered: Hawkins, Ratliff Fueled Loyola's Run

by Joel Censer | LaxMagazine.com

Short-stick defensive midfielder Josh Hawkins (above) and long-stick Scott Ratliff created chaos for opposing teams and allowed the Greyhounds to adapt to any pace thrown at them.
© Kevin P. Tucker

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Wasn't Division I men's lacrosse supposed to be this possession-oriented world? Wasn't power generally supposed to be concentrated around a couple schools in upstate New York and Tobacco Road?

Here we are and Loyola, a small Jesuit school from Baltimore, known mostly for being Charles Street's second lacrosse fiddle (to a certain Columbia blue and black superpower) – and located outside the ESPNU Hoopla – is the national champion.

It's not just the who, either. It's the how. Did a Greyhound team who went 1-of-14 and 3-of-15 at the faceoff stripe in successive days, not feel the effect of a tilted possession war? Did a team that was ranked 19th by Lacrosse Magazine in the preseason really manhandle a physical Maryland outfit that generally spits teams out the other end of its between-the-stripes buzzsaw?

When considering why Loyola went from preseason afterthought to cutting down the nets on Memorial Day in Gillette Stadium, look no farther than Josh Hawkins and Scott Ratliff, the Greyhounds' two linchpins between the stripes. No disrespect to Eric Lusby's catch-and-shoot clinic. Or Joe Fletcher's dominant performance against Owen Blye on Monday. Or J.P. Dalton's leadership that had kept the team focused all season. Or the fact that Mike Sawyer's right-handed side-cannon and quick release always drew the eyes of defenses. Or how Davis Butts didn't think twice about dodging Maryland's defensive savant Jesse Bernhardt. Or how Justin Ward and Chris Layne ran those big-little games to perfection.

In the end, Hawkins and Ratliff's dirty work between the boxes ignited the Hounds' post-season engine.

Hawkins is a thick, hyper athletic defensive midfielder who is college lacrosse's best ballhawk since Johns Hopkins' Benson Erwin. When he got his hands on an offensive player – engaging him with that brutal cross check that could move anyone this side of Will Yeatman – you knew the dodger didn't have a chance. Of course, Hawkins' contributions went beyond providing defensive half-field chops. He picked up tons of loose balls off the carpet, and was tough and athletic enough to turn an opposing team's faceoff "win" into a faceoff scrap. He's also supremely skilled: a constant one-man clear and transition catalyst. With time winding down in the first half against Notre Dame in the semis, Hawkins' right-to-left split and the subsequent off-handed bounceshot found itself moving past Irish All-American goaltender John Kemp and catching the top part of the net. It was a sort of 15-yard stomach punch to the grinders from South Bend.

Then there was Ratliff, a Corey Harned 2.0-fashioned long-stick who, when it's all said and done, probably will have inspired about a generation's worth of up-and-down, shoot-first longpoles. Ratliff's offensive bonafides have been well-documented. Scouting reports on him never were as simple as: "Don't leave him alone in transition or slide early on a fastbreak." Instead they resembled something more along the lines of: "He's going to cut to the ball, run pick-and-rolls, shoot from 12 yards and 72 aluminum inches aside, is for all intents and purposes an offensive player."

"Rat" saved his most impressive work this week for the defensive end, though. In the first quarter of Monday's final, Maryland's game planned to dodge him from behind. The strategy was two-fold: Try to tire him out while testing if he had the defensive mettle to go at it on the corner. But after Ratliff made life difficult for Terrapins' slinger Drew Snider, it was clear that strategy wasn't going to work either.

Having Hawkins and Ratliff on the same rope unit made Loyola versatile and multifaceted. If an opponent wanted to play fast? They better be ready to deal with the consequences of letting Ratliff and Hawkins run roughshod, and have Lusby and Sawyer waiting down low to sling it. If an opponent wanted to grind them into half-field oblivion? Well, have fun trying to score with one of those two harrying your midfielders all the while, hoping they don't cause enough turnovers and general chaos to tilt the possession war enough in their favor.

That's why Loyola could keep up with Denver's Canadian-infused road show. Three different times this season, including in the NCAA quarterfinals, Ratliff and Hawkins limited the Chase Carraro face-off unit, took advantage of unsettled opportunities and snuffed out enough pick-games to earn victories. Later, against Notre Dame in the semifinals, the pair swallowed up a midfield-oriented offense with crosschecks, defensive holds and generally dominant hand-to-hand combat.

In the title game, Loyola had to match the emotion of the Terrapin moshers. Not surprisingly, Hawkins and Ratliff gritted their teeth and went groundball-for-groundball and body blow-for-body blow with Maryland's own stable of hard-nosed athletes. When it came time to deal with the Terrapins' probing, pick-friendly, invert-heavy offense, those two helped make it look anemic.

Grey and green jerseys aside, the junior duo made the Hounds almost chameleon-like. Their presence gave Loyola the requisite athleticism and the mean streak to play bruising smashmouth half-field lacrosse. But the pair also had the skillset, IQ and aggressiveness to make Loyola an opportunistic team that could run teams off the field in a barnburner. The Hounds were just a little more complete than any of the other teams they played.

"Rat" and "Hawk" could be trackstars. They could be boxers playing rope-a-dope. In the end, they were whatever their team needed them to be. They were national champions.


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