When Nick Liddil scored with nine seconds left in Ohio State's 9-4 loss to Loyola in an Eastern College Athletic Conference men's lacrosse showdown Saturday, it was a footnote in a contest that had been decided much earlier.
Try telling that to the Greyhounds.
As they walked off the field at Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium in Columbus, Ohio, several defensive players were unhappy about Liddil's goal and shared their displeasure with teammates.
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"A big thing we've been talking about all year is finishing the game on the offensive side and defensive side," junior defenseman Joe Fletcher said. "Don't let up. Keep your foot on the pedal and just keep going. You never know what to expect, and it's a good thing to practice. … We've been practicing so that we don't allow easy goals. We want to finish it out. Don't take a shortcut. When we have our conditioning [drills] and everything, it's, 'Don't take a shortcut. Finish it the whole way.' It's that kind of mindset that really sets the tone on the practice field."
After an up-and-down start to the season, including a loss to Maryland in a rematch of last year's NCAA final as well as a setback at then-unranked Duke, No. 10 Loyola (8-2) has reinserted itself into the conversation as a championship contender. The Greyhounds can further polish their resume against Fairfield this Saturday at Ridley Athletic Complex.
Defense, which anchored Loyola during its title run last season, is at the root of the team's recent surge.
In the Greyhounds' past three contests, against Georgetown, Michigan and the Buckeyes, opponents averaged just 5.0 goals and 26 shots, failing to score on 12 extra-man opportunities. The teams averaged 18 turnovers, and Loyola caused 11.3 of those per game.
By comparison, in the Greyhounds' first seven contests, opponents averaged 8.6 goals and 33 shots, converting four of 17 man-up chances. Opposing teams averaged 15.3 turnovers, and the defense forced 9.4 turnovers per game.
Loyola coach Charley Toomey said the defense's improvement is a result of the individual players growing more comfortable with one another after the graduation of starting defenseman Dylan Grimm.
"I think you're seeing a team that is maturing," Toomey said. "Even though we have a lot of faces returning, it's still a different team. It's about adding [sophomore long-stick midfielder] Pat Frazier and [senior defenseman] T.J. Harris to the mix down low. We've had a couple short-sticks like [freshman] Joe Baker and [junior] Kyle Duffy that we've asked a lot of. We felt like those guys have matured, and obviously with [senior short-stick defensive midfielder] Josh [Hawkins] coming back, it just gives us an influx of athleticism to go alongside with [junior short-stick defensive midfielder Pat] Laconi and [senior long-stick midfielder Scott] Ratliff."
The defense's three-game run seemed to coincide with the return of Hawkins from a seven-game suspension for violating an unspecified university policy. Four of the unit's six longest scoreless stretches have occurred over the same span (32:54 against Ohio State, 32:07 in a 13-8 win over the Hoyas, and spans of 20:46 and 20:45 in a 10-3 thumping of the Wolverines).
But Hawkins downplayed the impact of his return, deflecting credit to his teammates.
"I would say that we're playing more team defense," said Hawkins, who has three goals and one assist this season. "With me back in there, we're really able to trust our short-sticks. We still slide when we need to, but we have that opportunity to trust our short-sticks a little bit more with their matchups."
CBS Sports Network analyst Evan Washburn noted that the Greyhounds have shown a greater sense of awareness when it comes to providing support for teammates.
"They're still sliding, but it's more of a situation where they're in their comfort zone in knowing when to go and when not to go," the former Delaware defenseman said. "As a defenseman, you know the personnel around you. If you're a defenseman, you know when Hawkins is on the ball, the things he's going to do and the things he's not going to do. In the times when he is beat, you're thinking, 'OK, I've got to go,' or, 'He may look like he's beat, but I know he'll be able to recover.' It's an understanding, and from a bird's-eye view, they're playing with much more confidence in their team defense than they were prior."
The defense has also been buoyed by the play of goalkeeper Jack Runkel. The junior has posted a 5.00 goals-against average and a .625 save percentage in the past three contests, major improvements on his 8.57 goals-against average and a .504 save percentage in the first seven.
"Having everyone playing together and everybody taking more reps in practice, it's feeding a level of comfort," Runkel said. "Everyone's a lot more comfortable playing with each other. And the more we play with each other, the more we communicate, slide to each other more and recover when we're scrambling."
Toomey and Hawkins said the defense's objective is to prevent each opponent from scoring eight goals, — but it's always aiming for a lower number. That's why Liddil's goal last week stuck in their craw.
"When we got together after that last goal, we were discussing what went wrong and what we needed to do right rather than looking at the scoreboard and saying that the game was over," Toomey said. "That's senior leadership, and that's what I saw from the sideline. I was very happy that they were upset by it, that they wanted to correct it because you learn from these moments, and that's what this defense continues to do."