Saints No. 1, but still focused
Limestone is top-ranked team for first time since 2004
With Limestone University claiming the top spot in the United States Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association (USILA) Division II poll this week for the first time since 2004, one would think a bit of celebration might be in order.
However, even as they reveled in their achievements– the Saints are 9-0 this season while outscoring their opponents by an average of more than 13 goals per game – head coach J.B. Clarke made sure the team kept its focus on what’s most important.
“We had a little mock ceremony for getting the No. 1 ranking,” Clarke said, “and there was no trophy to hand out.”
The message was well received, and the Saints know that as they head into their Saturday afternoon showdown with No. 7 Queens – their top rival in Conference Carolinas – their work is only half done.
“It feels pretty good,” sophomore attacker Riley Loewen said of the No. 1 ranking, “but there’s still a lot of season left, and a lot more to do.”
“The ranking’s nice,” added junior attacker Shayne Jackson, “but we know it doesn’t mean anything right now. We’ve just got to keep going into the playoffs.”
Still, with just three games left before the start of the 2011 Conference Carolinas tournament, it’s clear that the Saints are No. 1 for a reason. Limestone averages 20 goals per game and has yet to be held to single-digits this season (then-No. 2 Le Moyne came closest, but fell to the Saints, 11-9). A big part of that offensive explosion has come from the tandem of Loewen and Jackson. Loewen, who has been named Conference Carolinas Player of the Week three times this season, has 35 goals and 15 assists in nine games, while Jackson matches Loewen’s 50 total points with 14 goals and 36 assists.
“We like to share the ball on offense,” Loewen said, “and there are a lot of fast-break goals, and we’re moving the ball well. It’s fortunate for me that I’ve been on the scoring end of it.”
“The offense that we have is fast-paced,” Jackson added. “It’s a lot of fun to play, and a lot of guys are open, so there are a lot of options.”
While Clarke acknowledges that a full team effort has a lot to do with the production that Loewen and Jackson have enjoyed – “A lot of Shayne’s assists are due to ‘hockey assists,’” Clarke said, “a lot of stuff that’s going on before the ball even gets to Shayne” – he knows that the chemistry they enjoy on the field is something special.
“I’ve never had two players that work as well together as these two do,” said Clarke, who took Washington College to the NCAA Division III tournament seven times in 12 years before coming to Limestone.
Loewen is certainly glad to have such a gifted setup man.
“He can see the field really well,” Loewen said. “He’s got eyes in the back of his head. He knows where everyone is on the field and can put the ball right on their stick.”
That chemistry could produce even greater numbers if Loewen and Jackson regularly played the full game for Limestone. However, the lopsided nature of most of their games has allowed Clarke to empty the bench and get other players into the game at all positions, even goalie, where starting goalie Steve Gartelman has regularly yielded his crease to backups Michael Custis, Steven Christofides and Remington Steele.
Loewen, for one, has no problem ceding the field to his teammates when the game is under control.
“I like getting out of the game so other guys can come in,” Loewen said. “It just builds our team. It makes us that much better, getting more guys into the game.”
“Team morale is good,” Clarke said. “We brought 40 players to Florida on Saturday, and all of them played. The other day, we had 47 players play. We’ve had goals from 20 guys in a game. We had 11 guys have assists a week ago. The younger guys are playing in games, so they’re getting better. We actually think we’re getting deeper as the season goes on.”
The opportunity to get teammates onto the field may be harder to come by in the latter stages of the season. The Saints have seven games remaining before the NCAA tournament starts, including Saturday’s game against Queens, next Saturday’s game against Pfeiffer, the Conference Carolinas tournament, and games against No. 2 Mercyhurst and No. 12 Catawba.
“I think Queens is as good as any team we’ve played,” Clarke said. “We’re concerned about that. The good news is that we practice against a pretty darn good defense every day, and our defense practices against a pretty good offense. These guys are working very, very hard. I haven’t seen any indication that we’re resting on our laurels and not trying to get better every time out there.”
Take note Division II: led by the dynamic duo of Loewen and Jackson, with the supporting cast continuing to develop, the best just keeps on getting better.