Loyola at Duke: Three things to watch

Visiting Loyola trails, 15-10, in its series with Duke, which has won six of the last seven meetings. The teams have faced each other just once in the NCAA tournament with the Blue Devils cruising to a 12-7 victory in the first round of the 2008 postseason.

The Greyhounds (11-4) have won seven of their past nine contests, but are trying to rebound from an 18-11 thumping by Ohio State in an Eastern College Athletic Conference tournament semifinal on May 2. With 126 career goals, senior attackman Mike Sawyer is seven goals away from tying Pat Lamon for the most in that department in school history.

Seventh-seeded Duke (12-5) has won 10 of its past 11 games, including a run of nine straight that began when the team edged Loyola, 9-8, on March 8. Junior attackman Jordan Wolf needs just three goals to become the 10th player in school history to register 50 goals in a season.

Here are a few factors that could influence the outcome at Koskinen Stadium in Durham Sunday.

1) Battling Duke’s Brendan Fowler. The Blue Devils boast the third-most prolific offense in Division I (14.1 goals per game), and some of that unit’s success can be traced to the play of Brendan Fowler. The junior has won 65 percent of the faceoffs (266-of-409) that he has taken, ranking third in the nation. But Loyola is just one of two teams (Maryland was the other) that limited Fowler to less than 50 percent as sophomore Blake Burkhart outdueled Fowler, 12-9, in faceoff wins. “I think Blake understood his opponent and understood that we had to make it a battle, and that’s exactly what he did,” Greyhounds coach Charley Toomey recalled. “He got the ball out to spots where [senior midfielder] Davis [Butts] or Ratty [senior long-stick midfielder Scott Ratliff] could pick it up in the first game, and that’s what he’s going to need to do. He’s going to need to get the ball to areas on the field where it’s not an individual battle, but it becomes a wing play battle.”

2) Lowering Duke’s shooting percentage. The Blue Devils’ ability to light up a scoreboard can also be traced to an offense that pounces on unsettled situations for easy goals and is patient enough to work the ball around for a quality opportunity. They rank fourth in the country in shooting percentage at 33.5 percent, and Toomey said the key will be to influence Duke’s shooters into low-percentage chances. “I think they do an incredible job of working back to their strengths, but also working back to the middle of the field,” he said. “We have to dig in and play defense and be prepared to slide to support our short sticks. But we also have to force them into some weak-handed shots and low-angle as well, forcing them down the alley. We’ll see where that goes. We’re not going to be stubborn and live on islands like we did in the early part of the year. We’re prepared to slide to our shorties, and when you slide, you’ve got to cover up because I think the majority of their points are coming from their attack.”

3) Fighting for ground balls. Both sides are averaging more than 30 ground balls this spring, but Duke ranks third in the nation at 37.8 and Loyola ranks 27th at 30.8. But in their first meeting, the Greyhounds scooped up 35 loose balls to the Blue Devils’ 25 – the largest deficit of the season for Duke. Toomey said collecting ground balls will help determine whether Loyola can turn defense into instant offense. “For us, defensively it translates into transition offense,” he said. “Any time we can pick up a ground ball and can start to push the ball up the field, that’s a pretty good situation for us. And ground balls also mean extra possessions. The team that is going to have the ball the most and can make really good decisions is probably going to be the winner of this game.”