Loyola lacrosse at No. 1 for first time since ‘99

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BALTIMORE — The Loyola lacrosse program was left with an unpleasant reminder of its standing nationally as it wrapped up its offseason workouts last fall.

The Greyhounds, pegged as the nation’s No. 21 team in a preseason publication, were required to run 20 full-field sprints.

“It was a pretty clear message,” sophomore attackman Justin Ward said. “That was for every team that was ranked ahead of us at the end of the fall. When we went home for Christmas break, we had something to think about. It worked. It was a lot of running, but it was for the right reason.”

It couldn’t have worked better. The Greyhounds (12-0) have matched the best start in school history. They ascended to the No. 1 spot in the national rankings this month for the first time since 1999.

And Saturday, Loyola will play before a sellout crowd at the 3-year-old Ridley Athletic Complex when No. 11 Johns Hopkins (9-3) visits, the latest development in a remarkable season for a program that last won an NCAA tournament game in 2001.

“It’s not so much the ranking as the feeling the guys have about themselves,” coach Charley Toomey said. “It’s the alumni being excited. It’s filling the stands here at Ridley. It’s a special feeling in that way.”

Much of the Greyhounds’ transformation from preseason afterthought to national title contender stems from a philosophical shift in how to play. For years, Toomey opted for the methodical style in vogue throughout much of college lacrosse.

But after meeting with a pair of Division III programs known for peppering the cage, Toomey and his staff changed directions. Blessed with athleticism everywhere (especially in the defensive midfield), Loyola decided it would run.

It hasn’t stopped since.

A team that averaged 8.5 goals last year is scoring 12.4 goals per game this season. The defense has yet to allow an opponent to reach double figures. And attackmen Mike Sawyer (40 goals) and Eric Lusby (32 goals) have become a potent combo at the end of transition runs and could become Loyola’s first tandem with 40 goals apiece since 1990.

“You’re allowed to make some mistakes, but just having the athleticism in the midfield and having people who can run between the lines definitely helps,” Lusby said. “I love playing fast, and me and Mike are more like the beneficiaries of some of the plays. It’s definitely fun, and when you have two guys like me and Mike who can shoot the ball in the corners, it’s not a bad way to play.”

It’s also different. Toomey, a former goalie, has a defensive background. The idea of shrugging off an occasional wasted possession wasn’t the easiest step for him.

It also was necessary to embrace such thinking with Loyola fully committed to pushing the pace and taking 40 shots a game.

“I bite my tongue more than I’ve ever bitten it, because you have to understand that in playing that way, you might have a bad turnover,” Toomey said. “You might play five minutes of defense, run down and chuck it out of bounds. What we’ve learned to do is say ‘Let’s get that next opportunity. Let’s get it back.’ “

Often, the Greyhounds are effective at doing so. Toomey has not discussed Loyola’s preseason standing with his team since the fall.

Realistically, he didn’t need to.

“As a kid, you dream about being on the No. 1 team in the country and how things work out like that, but the success we’ve had this year has been what we wanted,” Ward said. “Not everybody thought we’d get it, but I think we all wanted it, and we all knew we could absolutely go out and take it if we really wanted it.”

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