Meet the Deadliest Takeaway Defender in Division I Lacrosse

PHOTO BY JOHN STROHSACKER

Loyola defenseman Foster Huggins dislodges the ball from Loyola attackman Lucas Spence during the Patriot League championship game April 29 at Ridley Athletic Complex in Baltimore.


The reminder comes every week as Loyola sorts out its defensive assignments, as it no doubt does for most teams: Be ready to slide if the opponent’s top player starts to gain an advantage.

Just in case.

Only “just in case” really hasn’t happened much, as the Greyhounds have turned to senior Foster Huggins to stymie opposing attackmen throughout the season.

“Coach makes sure everyone is ready to support him, but we feel like we haven’t had to at all,” defensive midfielder Brian Begley said. “Even though Foster has these tough matchups, it’s almost at the point where we can look away from him and say, ‘We know you can go win this matchup.’”

Huggins, the Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year, leads the country in caused turnovers (49). He’s forced at least three in 11 of the Greyhounds’ 15 games while defending the likes of Duke’s Justin Guterding, Virginia’s Michael Kraus and Johns Hopkins’ Shack Stanwick (see chart below).

He’ll see Kraus again Saturday as the sixth-seeded Greyhounds (12-3) welcome Virginia (12-5) to Baltimore for a rematch of both teams’ season opener.  And he’s playing at as high a level as he ever has during an athletic career in which he has recovered from three ACL tears.

“What’s happened for Foster is he’s healthy again,” Loyola coach Charley Toomey said. “We’re seeing the guy we saw as a sophomore. He came back really early [last year]. Loyola needed him. We tried to back off him in practice and play him in games, and we thought he was getting better at the tail end of the year. He just didn’t have that step and anticipation.”







Injuries are an inescapable but far-from-defining part of Huggins’ background. A Dallas native, friends pestered him about playing for a couple years before he finally acquiesced. In his first camp, he was placed at attack and wasn’t very good. He then moved to defense, experienced the thrill of smacking opponents and never left.

Huggins played football as well, and that’s where the first two ACL tears occurred. One happened in the final minute of the first half of a game when he caught a pass and, rather than dart out of bounds, he cut back inside and was hit from behind. Going into his senior year, he suffered a partial tear during a 7-on-7 tournament, and then tore it completely while landing awkwardly during preseason camp.

Even without the injuries, it was clear to Huggins by the middle of high school that football wasn’t his long-term avenue. At 5-foot-10, a career at the Division I level was unlikely. Lacrosse, meanwhile, had become his favorite outlet.

“I stuck with it because I loved it so much,” Huggins said. “I ended up playing it because I enjoyed it. I didn’t really think about playing in college until probably sophomore year when I initially started getting recruited. I wasn’t even reaching out; I was just going to tournaments because I was hanging out with friends.”

Still, Huggins, who attended Episcopal Dallas, tried to juggle both sports while he could. Faced with the choice of a 7-on-7 football tournament or a prominent lacrosse camp, Huggins opted for football followed immediately by a smaller lacrosse tournament. He got into his hotel room from the football event at 2 a.m. The first game of the lacrosse camp began six hours later during a downpour on a turf field.

And, as it turned out, Loyola assistant Matt Dwan was there scouting, and Huggins was quickly on the Greyhounds’ radar.

Huggins arrived in Baltimore just after Joe Fletcher completed his career. And while no one would confuse the two as twins — Fletcher was a lanky 6-foot-2 and 180 pounds during his Loyola career — both thrived because of their technical prowess rather than on brute strength.

“The comparison is a level of comfort that the coaches have that we’re going to draw a line in the sand with a matchup,” Toomey said.

Replicating Fletcher’s career would have been a tough task, but Huggins emerged as Loyola’s top defenseman as a sophomore. But he suffered his third ACL tear in the 2016 NCAA quarterfinals against Towson, and it left him with a choice.

He could undergo surgery in the summer and try to get back in time for his junior season. Or he could accept an internship with the Dallas Cowboys during their training camp, delay surgery until August and likely deal with a redshirt year.

According to Huggins, the conversation about redshirting wasn’t a lengthy one.

“I knew I came here because I wanted to play and because I wanted to help the team win,” Huggins said. “Last year we had a really good team, so I just wanted to make sure I was back.”

Huggins wasn’t quite himself last year, but not because of lingering pain. His rehabilitation cost him reps in the fall, and the Loyola staff’s attempt to manage his practice workload limited his ability to fully prepare. He improved as the spring unfolded, and also became a better off-ball player.

An offseason of full health meant the on-ball improvement he would have expected entering his junior year came a season later. And his emergence as a takeaway artist is a function more of a cerebral approach rather than pure aggression.

“When I’m forcing takeaways, it’s not because I’m hunting for them or anything like that,” Huggins said. “I’m just playing good fundamental defense. Obviously, being 5-10, I’m not going to throw any major over-the-head checks. … I do like to press out a little bit during the beginning of the game just to see how comfortable they are with the pressure. If they’re not, I’ll keep it. If they can handle it, I might try to play a little bit more conservative.”

Toomey marvels at Huggins’ tenacity and anticipation, and it’s an understanding of angles and space that have set the senior apart this season. The simple trail check, executed repeatedly, has led to plenty of good results for Loyola this season.

“That’s where we see him getting a lot of his turnovers,” Toomey said. “His ability to get in passing lanes, to trail check and arriving as the ball gets there are excellent. If you catch the ball, you need to make a quick decision because he’s right on your hands.”

On a team not as interested in transition, Huggins’ penchant for poking the ball out of an attackman’s stick would be useful but would only mark a wasted opportunity for an opponent.

For the Greyhounds, it means igniting an offense always eager for its rope unit to generate some scoring.

“It’s really elevated our defense as a whole,” Begley said. “He has the ability to not just take a guy out of the game, but to put the ball on the ground. It’s helped us succeed and improve over the past few seasons.”

Huggins also represents the latest wave of players from an area of the country where lacrosse is continuing to grow — and could be the source of even more stars in the not-too-distant future.

“Watching the kids, and I’ve been fortunate enough to coach them as well, where they are at right now is light years above what any of the guys I played with stick skills-wise, knowledge-wise, all that stuff,” Huggins said. “There’s a whole bunch of kids who are playing in college. I know for [some of] the Dallas-area schools, we would get more people for lacrosse games than we would football games sometimes. It’s definitely getting a lot bigger.”

It’s taken a certain brand of Texas tough for Huggins to etch out the stellar senior season he’s enjoyed. It’s not over yet, but he’s clearly one of the centerpieces of a team hoping to make its second trip to Memorial Day weekend in the last three years — and perhaps even secure Loyola’s second national championship.

“It is hard enough to come back from one; imagine two on your right and one on your left and that’s been your career,” Toomey said. “His perseverance and courage, his toughness, it’s everything you could hope for within your locker room.”


HOUNDING THE BEST

Led by defenseman Foster Huggins, Loyola has contained most of the top opposing offensive players on its schedule. A look at the performance of several players Huggins was assigned to cover this season:

Date

Player

Team

G

A

SH

TO

Feb 10 Michael Kraus Virginia 1 2 6 1
Feb 17 Shack Stanwick Hopkins 1 0 2 3
Feb 28 Jon Mazza Towson 0 1 7 0
Mar 10 Justin Guterding Duke 1 1 4 6
Mar 17 Christian Daniel Navy 2 0 6 2
Mar 24 Will Sands Bucknell 1 4 2 2
Mar 31 Mike Hawkins Colgate 2 0 5 5
Apr 7 Lucas Spence Lehigh 1 1 3 4
Apr 10 Daniel Bucaro Georgetown 2 3 9 3
Apr 14 Chris Gray Boston U. 2 1 5 2
Apr 27 Chris Gray Boston U. 1 2 4 3
Apr 29 Lucas Spence Lehigh 1 1 4 3

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