March 12, 2014

Lambrecht: Loyola's Ward Stirring the 'O' Drink

by Gary Lambrecht | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter | Lambrecht Archive

Justin Ward has shown to be the leader of a vibrant Loyola offense so far as his senior year unfolds. (John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com)

On a triumphant Sunday night before nearly 4,000 fans at Ridley Athletic Complex and a national TV audience, Loyola Greyhounds senior attackman and quarterback Justin Ward enjoyed a seemingly extended role as a spectator.

Much of Loyola's 14-7 rout of visiting Duke boiled down to suffocating stretches of Greyhounds defense and the dominant, one-on-one abilities of offensive weapons Nikko Pontrello and senior midfielder Matt Sawyer. They blew by defenders and cut through the non-sliding Blue Devils defense at will, en route to a combined 11 goals.

Sawyer's career-high six-goal explosion was a surprise. Pontrello's five-goal show was not. The junior attackman from Marlton, N.J., continued to abuse opposing defenses with his fourth game totaling at least four goals. He is now tied for second nationally with 24.

But so much of another lopsided victory by No. 2 Loyola (5-1) was about a conductor named Ward.

With Sawyer and Pontrello setting off the loudest fireworks, it was easy to downplay Ward, who was a dependable distributor/orchestrator once again with one goal and four assists. But on a night when Ward set the school's Division I assists record as he barked out sets, directed traffic and pushed the six-on-six tempo, Greyhounds coach Charley Toomey made sure to salute No. 15.

"This team is going to go as far as Justin goes," Toomey said. "It might not register in the stat sheet, but it registers in our practices. It registered in [Saturday's] practice, when [Ward] kept the man-up [unit] around for extra work.

"He makes the decisions on whether we pull the ball out or go to the goal. He gets guys into the right spots. We wouldn't be putting 14 goals on the board tonight if we don't have Justin and the preparation he brings. He dictates everything."

Along with defenseman Joe Fletcher, goalie Jack Runkel and defensive midfielder Pat Laconi — all vital contributors since 2012 — Ward completes the senior thread that has tied together Loyola's superb run of recent success. Since the start of 2012, a year that culminated with the school's lone national championship and an 18-1 finish, the Greyhounds (34-7) have won 83 percent of their 41 games.

Ward, a 5-feet-10, 175-pound product of Old Mill High School in Glen Burnie, Md., is the team's lone, three-year starter on offense. During an era at Loyola in which the offense once was funneled toward wicked, stand-still shooters Mike Sawyer and Eric Lusby, and now thrives on the rugged quickness and two-handed weaponry of Pontrello, Ward has been the constant presence.

And now, with Ward as the igniter, the 1-2 punch of Pontrello-Ward has taken center stage in Loyola's offense, which is averaging 15.2 goals during the team's five-game winning streak.

"At the end of my freshman year in 2011, I had a talk with [former offensive coordinator] Dan Chemotti," recalled Ward, a backup that year. "He told me the third attack position was my spot to lose in the fall. It was going to be between me and this freshman named Nikko Pontrello.

"That was like pointing a gun toward me. I decided that summer I was going to be in the best shape of my life. That 2012 season forced me to grow up fast. I learned how to prepare by watching extra film. I fell in love with working out. I made up my mind that I was going to know the offense better than anyone. After three games [in 2012], I had it figured out, get the ball to Sawyer and Lusby."

Ward was the unheralded and feisty third attackman on that 18-1 team, stoking a pair of 50-goal scorers while keeping his eye on Pontrello, who actually replaced Ward during an early-season blowout win over Duke and scored two points.

Instead of feeling threatened by Pontrello, Ward asked Pontrello to be his travel roommate and went about securing his starting spot. They started watching more film together. They both developed faster by pushing each other. And by the latter stages of 2012, Pontrello had been shifted to the second midfield line to improve Loyola's depth up top.

The magic of 2012 was followed by an uneven, 11-5 finish that ended with a one-goal loss to eventual champion Duke in the NCAA tournament's first round. The 2013 season in no way reflected badly on Ward (27 goals, 35 assists) or Pontrello, who gave the Greyhounds 35 points with the first midfield unit.

There has been nothing uneven about Loyola thus far in 2014. The Greyhounds have won five in a row, after a season-opening, overtime loss at Virginia. They have dispatched their last four opponents — including back-to-back, 14-7 knockouts at No. 15 Lehigh and against No. 4 Duke — by a combined score of 64-22. They have done it with lockdown defense and a two-headed monster at the other end.

There is Pontrello, back at his original home on attack, where he has been unstoppable and has shot 53.3 percent.

And there is Ward, the savvy, demanding, undisputed leader of a unit that — youthful midfield and all — looks flat-out scary right now.

A true feeder who said he tries to emulate the vision and passing that defined former college superstars Steele Stanwick and Rob Pannell, Ward is tied for tops in the nation with 19 assists.

He also stands atop Loyola's Division I leader board with 86 assists.

"Winning obviously is the most important thing, but that [assists] record is a treat," said Ward, who said he aims to get into Division I coaching after graduating from Loyola this spring. "Anytime you can put your family's name in a record book, it's special. I take a lot of pride in the element of passing.

"My job as an offensive leader and a captain is to keep the guys focused. This is an orchestrated offense. The playbook [under coordinator David Metzbower] is the deepest I've ever seen. I'm a firm believer in attention to detail. There really is no such thing as perfection, but trying to be perfect is the goal."


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