It took until his junior college season for Nikko Pontrello to define his role on the lacrosse field.
The Loyola University Maryland junior, a St. Augustine Prep alumnus, has emerged as one of the most prolific scorers in the nation this spring. His production has been a big part of the Greyhounds' success this spring. They are ranked No. 1 among NCAA Division I programs, according to the print and online magazine Inside Lacrosse.
Loyola (15-1) is seeded third in the 16-team NCAA tournament heading into its first-round game today against Albany (11-5) (noon on ESPNU).
Pontrello's role on the team is more defined this season than it previously had been, he said. Last season, as an attack and midfielder, he showed flashes of his scoring potential, compiling 16 goals and 35 points.
This season, Pontrello has scored 50 goals, which is fourth in the nation, and his 62 points.
"I've practiced the same position in practice every day," Pontrello said by telephone Thursday. "I just worked on my game as far as an attackman's standpoint this year, and I just think we have been playing better as the season's going on because I've gotten used to my position."
His coach, Charley Toomey, agrees.
"Watching Nikko develop in his freshman year when he ran as a (midfielder), we saw a kid that was fearless in terms of a dodger," Toomey said by telephone Thursday. "He's very aggressive in his dodges, very physical in his dodges."
Those characteristics prompted Toomey to move Pontrello down low, and it started to pay off last season. Pontrello found his identity, which Toomey described as being "the Robin to Batman ... probably the next most dangerous guy on the field next to (Justin) Ward."
The attack unit of Pontrello and linemates Justin Ward and Brian Schultz helped prepare the Loyola defense for today's high-scoring opponent. Albany features brothers Lyle and Miles Thompson, who are first and second in total points in the country with 114 and 108, respectively.
"It's probably been a fun week for Nikko and Justin," Toomey said about turning them loose in practice to challenge the defense. "(Today's game) is not going to be a game where it's a 6-5 score. I think it could be a 15-14 game with that up-and-down type of pace that makes lacrosse a lot of fun to watch."
The Greyhounds lost their first game of the season, 14-13 in overtime to Virginia. They haven't lost since and will take a 15-game winning streak into the tournament.
Last season, Loyola lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament to Duke, which this year is ranked third in the country and seeded first in the tournament. The previous year, 2012, Loyola won its first national title.
Pontrello said this year's Loyola team is much different than last year's team, which graduated a lot of seniors.
"We still have the same mentality," the two-time Press All-Star said Thursday. "We still want to play the same Loyola lacrosse and play our best when it comes to playoff time. We have a little bit more experience, which is good, and it's good for our young guys to see that."
Pontrello's younger brother Steve is a sophomore midfielder for North Carolina. Loyola and the Tar Heels could only meet in the tournament final, which is scheduled for May 26 at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.
Steve Pontrello has started 13 games for UNC. He also graduated from St. Augustine and was a two-time Press Lacrosse Player of the Year and a three-time first-team Press All-Star. UNC (10-4) plays Denver (14-2) in a first-round game tonight (7:30 on ESPNU).
Nikko said that he and his brother always have had the idea of playing each other in the playoffs in the back of their minds.
"It's kind of a funny feeling for our parents," Nikko said. "We hope we can make it all the way and want the best for us. If his team gets knocked out, he'll root for me, and if mine gets knocked out I'll root for him."
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