30 in 30: Can Loyola Turn the Page to 2013?
|Loyola, and short-stick defensive
midfielder Josh Hawkins included, must turn its back on the
Greyhounds' 2012 national championship season as much as possible.
"Our message: This is the 2013 team. This is not the 2012 team,"
coach Charley Toomey said.
© Kevin P. Tucker
On Friday evening Loyola will host its national championship ring unveiling ceremony. In the preseason, it's very likely the Greyhounds will have a No. 1 ranking next to their name. And all of next spring, the small, private university tucked in north Baltimore on Cold Spring Lane will find itself under the microscope.
Such is the territory when you're the reigning champs, return all but three starters from the title-winning team, and are the preseason top-ranked darlings.
Traveling to the White House. Being honored at halftime of a men's soccer game. Attracting constant media attention. These are new, unchartered waters for Loyola and coach Charley Toomey.
"For me, distractions are the things that come along with winning," Toomey said. "The more we talk about 2012, the worse. To me, this is the 2013 team.
"But I also recognize we have to do some things to honor that team, and there are things that come with winning a national championship. We're going to use the ring ceremony as an opportunity to say, 'Hey, this is why we won. This is why we're here tonight. Because of the types of values, our character that was in the locker room.' I'm glad there are freshmen here for that, because they're going to need to hear how important our freshmen were to this team last year."
So with all the diversions, with everyone telling the Greyhounds how great they are — and boy, are they good — how will Loyola fend off complacency?
How will the Hounds keep their hunger — what junior attackman Justin Ward described as one of three critical components, along with coaching and leadership, of last year's championship squad — and maintain their burning fire to be the nation's best?
"We've challenged our guys to think about what made them successful last year — how they practiced, how they attacked workouts, how they became a more disciplined team," Toomey said. "This has been our message: This is the 2013 team. This is not the 2012 team. A lot of people around the university are still congratulating the guys. But when they come to practice every day, we're looking for a standard."
A Walnut and Bronze standard. A championship standard.
Toomey said Loyola's coaching staff has learned lessons from Nick Saban and the Alabama football program, which won national titles in 2009 and 2011, but went 10-3 in the intermittent season despite having the same core contributors.
Toomey's staff tracked down articles written about the Crimson Tide to see how the players carried themselves. Surely, they watched the various ESPN documentaries that looked inside the program as well.
"Saban talks about Alabama coming off their first national championship and how the team was very complacent," Toomey said. "They limped that following year. They've had a much different approach since then. You can see it in how they go about their business from day to day."
Consider the message received.
"Sure, we might have Scott Ratliff, Josh Hawkins, Mike Sawyer back on the field. But as a cohesive unit, we haven't done anything worth puffing our chest about or holding any trophies over," said Ward, who is one of Loyola's leaders. "We've got to stay hungry and continue to work, and do everything we possibly can, so we can get after people. As a unit, the 2013 team hasn't won anything yet. We haven't even played a game."
But where does the inspiration come from? The Greyhounds won't have the chip on their shoulder they had last year when preseason polls are released. How will Loyola remain the hunter and not the hunted?
"There's no excuse to not have any motivation," Ward said. "Defending any kind of championship is one of the hardest things to do in sports. There's no more motivation needed. We're going to stick to the same things we focused on last year — discipline, athleticism, speed, talent between the lines. That's who we are. It's our bread and butter. We're a transition team. That will still be our 2013 identity. We will run, we will run, we will run. But we still have a lot of work to do."
Largely, the remaining work will surround replacing the graduated Eric Lusby, Dylan Grimm and J.P. Dalton, three major factors in Loyola's Cinderella run.
"It's funny. If you had asked me if there was one guy we were going to struggle to replace, it wouldn't be Eric Lusby. It would be Dylan Grimm," Toomey said of the 2012 co-captain and starting defenseman. "Watching us at practices of late, that's more of a concern of mine right now."
Certainly, most everyone's attention will focus on losing Lusby's 71 points (54 goals, 17 assists) of production, especially considering the "King of the Lefty Front Swing," set the NCAA tournament scoring record with 17 goals. Not only did Lusby put the Greyhounds on his back in the postseason, but opposite Tewaaraton Award finalist Mike Sawyer, Lusby gave Loyola the nation's finest 1-2 lefty-righty scoring punch and incredible offensive balance.
"I don't think we could expect any one guy to come in and re-run the numbers that Eric had last year," Toomey said. "But we can ask a lot of guys to pick up three or four to take the pressure off."
Offensive coordinator Dan Chemotti, who this offseason turned down an opportunity to be the head coach at Boston University, will turn to Ward, the rising junior who finished with 12 goals and 31 assists as Loyola's third option. Ward, who said "a little more weight will be put on my shoulders as the quarterback of the offense operating from X," entered 2012 as a lesser-known commodity and ended it among the best field generals in the country. [Editor's note: Make sure to read the November issue of Lacrosse Magazine, which highlights Ward in its annual "Gym Rats" section.]
"What we have with Justin is a lacrosse version of Peyton Manning, a kid who really embraces the study and has a wonderful work ethic on and off the field," Toomey said. "He wants to understand the game. He wants to understand the looks, wants to understand how to break down a zone, he wants to understand transition on extra-man, he wants to understand everybody's spot. He has tremendous vision."
Ward has become a more physical, aggressive dodger, and has continued to evolve his game. It wouldn't be out of line to suggest a 30-goal, 30-assist performance if everything goes according to plan.
"My mental approach is this: I have to be what my team and my coaches need," Ward said. "Whether it's me continuing to distribute and, or it's me scoring a few more goals. Whatever it takes for the team to be successful. But I know my coaches and teammates are looking for me to be a 25-goal guy. It's definitely not out of the reach. I've worked hard in the offseason to put myself in the position to score those goals when the team needs them. I know what I have to do."
With opposing defenses keying on Sawyer, Ward should be in a spot to shine. Still, Loyola will look to find a player to step into Lusby's spot on the right side of the field. Those competing for the job include: St. John's transfer Harry Kutner, highly regarded sophomore Nikko Pontrello, Ward's high school teammate Brian Schultz, and Canadian freshman Zach Herrewyers.
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Kutner seems to be the leader in the clubhouse, and the symmetry from 2012 of having a left-handed fifth-year senior doesn't hurt his case. "He's a mature young man who has scored meaningful collegiate goals in his career," Toomey said. But Pontrello, a speedy and ambidextrous attackman whose brother Steve was on the U.S. U-19 team, "is playing the best lacrosse I've seen him play," according to Toomey.
Ask Toomey if Pontrello is left-handed or right-handed, and you'll get an interesting answer: "He'll never tell the coaches. One day we'll say, 'All the lefties go over here,' and he'll run to the righty side. The next day he'll go to the lefty side. As coaches, we honestly do not know. I believe he's a righty. Coach Chemotti thinks he's a lefty. He's that talented with his hands. That's the truth. He plays games with us. He plays games with our heads. He'll change it up every day. It's usually not a good trait, but for him, it's really good."
On the defensive end, Loyola will be without the services of Grimm, who caused 21 turnovers and picked up 42 ground balls. Aside from stats, Grimm more importantly helped orchestrate the Greyhounds' defense. Grimm and partner-in-crime Joe Fletcher last year "really developed into a two-headed monster," Toomey said.
Fletcher is back, as is Canadian bruiser Reid Acton.
"Now, we've asked Reid to move around a little bit, and we've challenged him to play below goal-line. Joe Fletcher is still phenomenal on the ball. He's terrific. He's not a vocal guy, but he's working on that right now," Toomey said. "The defensive leader is Scott Ratliff, but it's difficult to be a leader when you're not on the field for 60 minutes. He's our long pole, and we want him on the field as much as we can. But he's not a close defenseman. That's something we're trying to figure out. Who is going to develop into that stopper, that defensive leader down low? Who's going to run those huddles when things go bad? We have some guys who are competing for the spot."
The third defenseman's spot appears to be a three-man race between senior T.J. Harris, sophomore Alex Klincewicz and sophomore David Manning. Harris, the elder statesman, got the nod at Loyola's alumni game last weekend. Klincewicz, at 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds, and Manning, at 6-3 and 205, offer more size.
"We haven't figured it out yet," Toomey said. "But we don't need to figure it out until February, as I keep telling them."
Remember, Toomey didn't settle on goalie Jack Runkel until several games into last season, and he likely won't shy away from shifting things next spring.
At the faceoff stripe, junior Brendan Donovan, sophomore Blake Burkhart and freshman Kyle Gangemi will compete for the job. Burkhart, a Rutgers transfer, has impressed so far. As an outside-the-box alternative, Ratliff could take some faceoffs, though that removes his athleticism from the wings, where he was so effective.
Loyola also boasts incredible midfield depth, with Chris Layne, Sean O'Sullivan and Davis Butts all returning.
All things considered, there are not many questions to answer for the reigning champs, who will proudly display their national championship rings later today. Thing is, Loyola isn't approaching it that way.
"This is a whole new team," Toomey said. "That's where our focus has been, to make sure we're developing a work ethic and leadership the right way, along with the team chemistry that we're going to need.
"There's a whole new trophy out there that everybody is chasing."