It's been a long, long offseason for us Virginia lacrosse fans. An offseason filled with barbs about missing the tournament, and made worse by the 2013 football season getting cancelled (because we all agree that's what happened, right?). But finally—FINALLY—the snows have thawed a little and the fastest sport on two feet returns to Grounds.
Tonight at 7:00, the 2014 Virginia men's lacrosse season opens with a top-twenty matchup against #16 Loyola.
By now you've all read Caroline's excellent preview pieces about the Hoos attack, midfield, defense, and specialists. (If not, I'll wait.) But now it's time to brush up on our opponent for game one: the Loyola Greyhounds.
Loyola followed up its NCAA title in 2012 with an 11–5 campaign in 2013. In its final ECAC season, the Greyhounds finished 6–1 in conference. Their season ended with a 12–11, double-overtime heartbreaker to Duke in the first round of the NCAAs.
Most of the midfield that keyed last year's success has graduated, including LSMs and shorty defensive specialists. That means the offense will have to flow through first-team All-Patriot League attackman Justin Ward. The senior has posted consecutive 30-plus assist seasons (31 in the 2012 title season, 35 last year). He has very capable complements on the attack in Nikko Pontrello and Zach Herreweyers, and a dynamic threat from Jeff Chase at the midfield.
[UPDATE: According to Inside Lacrosse, Herreweyers is ineligible this year and consequently will not be playing tonight.]
But the guts of Loyola's 2014 squad is its defense. Senior Joe Fletcher might be the best long-stick close defenseman at the college level; he was just named to the U.S. Lacrosse team, the only college player to make the squad. Fletcher was also the third overall pick in the MLL Draft. Behind Fletcher, goalie Jack Runkel is a massive (6'3, 250) and imposing presence in the cage. His 22—yes, twenty-two—saves against Duke were what kept Loyola in it all the way to the end of the second overtime.
The Hoos will have their work cut out trying to score. But the returning talent on the defensive side of the ball and a midfield that is athletic and deep should put Virginia on the right side of this one. Come out to Klockner tonight to kick the season off right!