Towson attackman Brendan Sunday and goalie Tyler Canto played a huge role in the team's unexpected rise to the top of the national polls.
It was an impressive milestone for a team that was not even ranked in the top 20 prior to the season.
"We always think we can play anyone, regardless of their ranking or whatever," Sunday said. "We always have confidence."
Towson head coach Shawn Nadelen loves to challenge his players by putting together one of the most difficult schedules in college lacrosse. The players responded with some key victories.
However, they never got too caught up in the hype of earning the school's first No. 1 ranking as a Division I lacrosse program.
The Tigers opened the season with five consecutive victories and grabbed that No. 1 ranking after a 12-10 victory against then-top-ranked Loyola at Johnny Unitas Stadium Feb. 27. After beating Jacksonville, 15-13, in Charlotte, N.C., the Tigers dropped their next three games to then-No. 3 Cornell (18-11), No. 2 Duke (12-10) and No. 13 Denver (7-6) in the middle of March.
Instead of getting discouraged, the players simply learned from the experience.
"Even though we went on a little losing streak, it was a wakeup call," Canto said. "The No. 1 ranking does not mean anything until the end of the year."
Sunday added: "We knew we weren't as good as we thought we were. Even though we had that No. 1 ranking, we knew there were things we needed to work on. It showed. A couple of teams exposed that. It was cool to have it, but we're really focused on winning the CAA."
Sunday, a senior, has played a key role and has led the team in scoring throughout the season. Opposing defensemen have tried to adjust with double teams and by making it more difficult for him to get the ball, but Sunday has been able to counter that strategy by being patient and letting some of the other attackmen take advantage of the open space.
"I've had chances and I've capitalized on a few of them," he said. "We don't really view it as one guy carrying the whole load. We have a really talented group. That has shown throughout the whole year. We've been pretty balanced."
The 6-foot-5 Sunday arrived at Towson weighing about 180 pounds from Arlington (N.Y.) High School, where he finished as the program's all-time leading scorer with 249 points. He played a huge part of the Tigers' scout team as an underclassman while he worked to get bigger and stronger.
"I've played against some really great defensemen," he said. "On the scout team, I played against guys like Mike Lowe, Chad Patterson, Gray Bodden, Koby Smith, guys currently on the defense right now. It helped my development a ton, just playing those top-level defensemen. That's really helped me."
Sunday, who now weighs 205 pounds, missed all of his sophomore season after suffering an upper body injury. He bounced back in 2018 and started 13 games, finishing with 17 goals and six assists.
This year, Sunday has become the go-to player on the attack and sets an example for some of the younger players with his work ethic. Sunday had 29 goals and 15 assists entering play April 13.
"I'm not even close to the player I want to be," Sunday said. "That always drives me."
Canto, a junior, shares a similar drive to improve. The 6-foot-6 goalie made 785 saves during three seasons at Billerica Memorial High School in Massachusetts. He was named an Eastern Massachusetts All-American, was a two-time Boston Lax All-American and two-time all-conference honoree. He began his career at UMass Lowell before transferring to Towson prior to the 2018 season.
"I really liked it here and really liked the coaching staff. I like the culture here," he said. "We want to win our conference. We want to win a national championship. Everyone is on the same page. It's the best decision I made."
Last summer, Canto went to a boxing gym to work on the quickness of his hands. He also worked with a weighted shaft and pretended to make saves to improve his speed and motion to make saves.
"It really did help a lot," he said. "I could tell I was a lot quicker, especially off-hip, which is a tough one for me. I feel a lot more confident in it now. I just feel a lot quicker all-around."
Canto entered this season behind redshirt sophomore Shane Brennan. But Brennan suffered an unspecified lower-body injury, and Canto took advantage of the opportunity.
"Coming in, I wanted to earn that starting spot," Canto said. "I was ready to battle every day. Obviously, there was some injuries and I made the best of my opportunity. I'm just trying to run with it and keep it going."
He's made some highlight-reel saves that have received national attention.
In the fourth quarter against Loyola, Canto dove to the right of the cage on a shot fake by Greyhounds senior attackman Kevin Lindley. Just as Lindley was about to finish off what appeared to be an easy, short-range goal, Canto managed to raise his stick just high enough to make a point-blank stop to preserve a 9-7 lead.
He finished with 14 saves.
"Honestly, I don't even know what was going through the kid's head," sophomore defenseman Koby Smith said of Canto after the game. "I slid and I turned around and all of a sudden Canto is on his butt on the ground, shaking his stick around and the kid is throwing a thousand fakes."
Brennan is now fully healthy and relieved Canto in games against Cornell and Hofstra. Nadelen said both goalies will have opportunities moving forward, and he expects them to respond to the challenge of being the starter.
"We've got two great ones," Nadelen said. "That's a luxury we have. Like every position, it is something we have to evaluate. The goalie position is no different than any other position and we will see who we want to go with."
After the arduous nonconference schedule, the Tigers are fully focused on winning the CAA and earning an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Massachusetts was picked to win the conference title in a preseason vote of the league's six head coaches, just ahead of the Tigers.
However, there are several teams that could make a run at that championship, and the Towson players are not taking anyone lightly.
"Anyone can beat anyone," Sunday said. "That's the best thing about our conference. It's just a bunch of hard-nosed, gritty teams. We're just trying to be the best version of us."
Photo Credits: Rob Maloof/Towson Athletics
Issue 253: April 2019
Originally published April 15, 2019