As the Loyola men’s lacrosse team put the finishing touches on a 13-8 win over visiting crosstown foe Johns Hopkins on Saturday, a familiar voice spoke up from behind a few media members in the press box atop Ridley Athletic Complex. “Top 5, if you ask me,” Pat Spencer said. “Top 5, but that’s just my opinion.”
His take carries weight, even if he is probably biased.
Spencer, four years removed from playing for the Greyhounds, is the most decorated athlete in Loyola lacrosse history. He played in the final four as a freshman attackman, finished his career second on the NCAA’s all-time points list, had the most assists in Division I history and won the 2019 Tewaaraton Award — lacrosse’s equivalent of the Heisman Trophy.
Not only that, his vision on the lacrosse field has since translated to the basketball court to the point where Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr called him an “intriguing prospect.” Spencer — now 6 feet, 3 inches, and 205 pounds — starred in hoops and lacrosse in high school at Boys’ Latin, too, and used a graduate year of NCAA eligibility at Northwestern in 2020 to play guard on its basketball team. He’s still pursuing a career in his second sport, but that is temporarily on pause after he fractured his wrist playing for the Warriors’ G-League affiliate last month.
So there Spencer was on Saturday, wrist heavily wrapped, watching sports rather than playing. He had eyes on the game (and another screen tuned to his brother, Cam, playing that afternoon for Rutgers in basketball, too; they’re an athletic family). And Patrick liked what he saw from the 52 guys down below on the turf in the chrome green helmets and white jerseys.
Then-No. 12 Loyola built a 6-2 halftime lead and was ahead 11-3 by the end of the third quarter, and began resting starters. In all, the Greyhounds defense stifled an admittedly shorthanded Johns Hopkins offense, without two of its primary threats due to injury, but the unit was impressive, nonetheless, and caused 13 turnovers and gave the ninth-ranked Blue Jays little hope.
One thing was clear: Canadian grad student defenseman Cam Wyers is an all-around force. And on offense, Loyola had seven different scorers, reflective of a team that brings back seven of its top-10 point scorers from 2022. That went with effective faceoff and goalie performances. Solid. But top-5 worthy, as Spencer stumped?
It’s difficult to argue. Loyola began the season Feb. 11 by beating the defending NCAA Division I national champion Maryland, then their Charles Street rival Johns Hopkins seven days later. Up next on the schedule is a third Big Ten opponent (Hopkins is an affiliate member, lest anyone forget) in No. 13 Rutgers (2-1) on Saturday in New Jersey. Through the very early part of this college lacrosse season, Loyola — which last season missed the NCAA tournament after coming up one goal short in the Patriot League final — is the best of the Baltimore-area men’s teams for sure, and they deserve a high national ranking. That came Tuesday, when the latest coaches’ poll was released, likely to Spencer’s delight. Loyola is ranked fifth.
They owe the great start in part to experience, depth and the coaching of Charley Toomey — now in his 18th season. The Greyhounds have more stability, and it shows. Maryland, meanwhile, is replacing five starters and its top-four scorers from last season under two-time national championship coach John Tillman, while Johns Hopkins is still experiencing growing pains under third-year coach Peter Milliman.
Take this example: A few minutes before the opening faceoff on Saturday, Loyola had to rip up its defensive game plan. When the starting lineups were announced over the public-address system at Ridley Athletic Complex, Johns Hopkins finishing threat Russell Melendez and initiator Jacob Angelus were not part of Johns Hopkins’ attack, which was unexpected.
The Greyhounds’ coverage assignments shifted on the fly. Loyola planned to put a long-stick defender on Johns Hopkins midfielder Brendan Grimes, Toomey said, but with Grimes shifted to attack for Hopkins, that role fell largely to Wyers down low, and led to a cascade of other potentially difficult adjustments.
“We had to manage that moment,” Toomey said. “There was communication between what’s happening on the field and our sideline. The players were dialed in. … We were prepared for Melendez. We knew we had to get to his hands. When he’s not out there, it’s like, ‘Who’s the next guy that’s coming? And what hand is he?’ We really rely on trying to take away strong hands, and so when there’s a little bit of confusion out there, we have to figure it out within the game.”
They did. Success on the backend begins with Wyers, who has drawn top cover assignments since his freshman year. He’s a disruptor. In the first quarter of Saturday’s game, he slid off-ball twice to cause turnovers and had a pair of clears. Wyers, who was picked in the first-round by the NLL’s Buffalo Bandits in September, is also the vocal leader of the unit that also returns two-year starter Matt Hughes on close defense, and has gotten a great start from junior goalie Luke Staudt. He had 19 saves against Maryland in Loyola’s opener.
The Loyola offense does not have a Spencer-like star. But they may not need one if they continued to get balanced scoring. Among the seven of their 10 point-scorers from a year ago, the Greyhounds have four players who scored 15 more goals, led by senior midfielder Adam Poitras, another Canadian. Solid faceoff performances, like Eric Pacheco’s 11-for-17 game, will help. So does the defense, which forced 12 Maryland turnovers in Loyola’s statement-making season opener.
“We recognize that’s a strength of our team and when they get going it sort of fires us up on the offense,” said midfielder Seth Higgins, who had two goals and an assist against Hopkins, “when they give us the ball and we have a couple extra possessions per game.”
What all this means over a three-month regular season in which injuries and other surprises can pop up remains to be seen, but the Greyhounds could easily be a permanent resident near the top of the national rankings all year.
Although they’re not going to get ahead of themselves, which also comes with experience. With Spencer’s opinion in my head after the game, when I asked a pair of players in a press conference what this team’s “ceiling” might be, and if they talk about goals, Toomey understandably interjected: “I think it’s one game at a time, is what they would say.”
Wyers, sitting a chair over from his coach, followed in stride — perhaps even more effectively — by referencing their next practice, not game. “Focused on Monday,” he said. Boring, but effective. By Tuesday, they were Top 5 anyway.
More games to watch
Aside from the Loyola’s tilt at Rutgers, a team Toomey called likely the best offense it has faced thus far, there’s another big matchup in New Jersey when No. 6 Maryland (2-1) visits No. 4 Princeton (1-0).
Now No. 17 Johns Hopkins (2-2) will look to avoid what would be a major upset loss to fifth-year Division I program Utah (1-2) at Homewood Field on Saturday at noon.
The Maryland women’s team (2-1) is also ranked sixth nationally — slipping four spots in the coaches’ rankings after a 20-11 loss at No. 2 Syracuse last Friday — and is on the road again in Florida to face the No. 7 Gators (1-1).
The eighth-ranked Loyola women (2-0) host Ivy League foe Penn (1-0) next Wednesday. In their season opener on Saturday, the Greyhounds also beat Johns Hopkins, 12-10, then took care of Towson, 16-15, on Wednesday.
Congratulations are in order for Salisbury coach Jim Berkman and Duke grad student attacker Maddie Jenner (McDonogh).
Berkman — the winningest coach in NCAA men’s lacrosse history at any level, now in his 35th season at Division III Salisbury — reached the 600-win milestone in a 25-10 victory over Scranton last weekend. The Sea Gulls (3-0) moved up to No. 1 in the D-III coaches’ poll after the win.
Meanwhile, Jenner, an Annapolis native, became the NCAA Division I women’s all-time draw control leader during No. 10 Duke’s 24-1 blowout win over Gardner-Webb on Sunday in Durham, North Carolina. Jenner has 646 draw controls for her career, breaking the record of 645 previously set by Robert Morris’ Jessica Karwacki from 2013-16.
Corey McLaughlin is a veteran writer and editor who has covered sports in Baltimore for a decade, including for Baltimore magazine, USA Lacrosse Magazine and several other publications.