With four losses to ranked opponents in the young season, the Blue Devils are off to their worst start since 1992.

And it won’t get any easier during Spring Break when Duke hosts No. 4 Loyola, the reigning national champion, Friday evening at Koskinen Stadium before heading to Chapel Hill to take on No. 9 North Carolina next Wednesday.

“It’s an athletic cliché, but we really take games one at a time,” Duke head coach John Danowski said. “[The Loyola game] is a great opportunity for our program to measure up and see how we’re going to fare against the defending national champs.”

Following Duke’s 16-10 loss to Maryland in the NCAA semifinal last year, Loyola (4-1) routed the Terrapins 9-3 behind Eric Lusby’s four goals, winning the first national title in school history. The Greyhounds lost Lusby, who ranked sixth in the country in goals per game with 2.84, to graduation last year.

They return their other five double-digit scorers, however, with the most notable being senior Mike Sawyer and junior Justin Ward. Sawyer notched 52 goals last year—just two fewer than Lusby—while Ward, who led the team in assists with 31, only found the back of the net 12 times. Inside Lacrosse writer Christian Swezey selected Ward as a “sleeper pick” early in the season, a prediction that has proven accurate thus far. Ward is the Greyhounds’ leading scorer with 14 goals this season, and Sawyer follows closely behind with 12 tallies on the year.

“[Ward] can work behind the cage to pass, set picks and create shots for himself,” Swezey said. “Last year [Loyola] had Lusby on left and Sawyer on right, so Ward fed them the ball and didn’t force shots. This year he’s stepping in for Lusby.”

In addition to containing the Greyhounds’ high-powered offense, Duke (2-4) will have to break through their sturdy defensive unit. Senior defensive midfielder Josh Hawkins and junior defender Joe Fletcher were two of just 15 players in the country to be named Inside Lacrosse First Team Preseason All-Americans, and junior goaltender Jack Runkel garnered ECAC Defensive Player of the Week honors after helping the Greyhounds win both of their games last week.

Although Loyola handily defeated Duke 13-8 when the teams met last season, Loyola head coach Charley Toomey believes that the Blue Devils’ veteran attacking trio of juniors Jordan Wolf, Josh Dionne and Christian Walsh will pose a challenge to his experienced defense.

“We’re looking forward to a great game,” Toomey said. “We have a battle on our hands Friday night.”

After playing Loyola, Duke will make the short trip to Chapel Hill Wednesday to take on North Carolina (2-2), which is coming off a 10-9 loss to No. 2 Notre Dame in triple overtime. Last season, the Blue Devils defeated the Tar Heels 13-11 at Koskinen Stadium. When the teams met again in the ACC championship game, North Carolina took a 4-2 halftime lead, but Duke rallied to a 12-9 victory, claiming the conference crown.

“[Wednesday’s game] is definitely circled on both teams’ calendars because of the rivalry,” North Carolina senior Marcus Holman said. “It was a tough loss in the ACC championship. [The upcoming game] is going to be exciting, and we’re going to give [Duke] everything we have.”

The Tar Heels return their starting attack line of Holman and sophomores Jimmy Bitter and Joey Sankey, who have scored 11, nine and eight goals this season, respectively. Holman, an All-America selection who notched 39 goals and dished out 35 assists last year, finished the season ranked fifth in the country in points per game with 4.35. Bitter earned the starting nod in the middle of the 2011-12 season, energizing North Carolina’s offense and picking up All-America honors after a standout rookie campaign. Rounding out the Tar Heels’ offensive unit, Sankey is known for his frenetic style of play, with frequent goals off turnovers and 50-50 ground balls in the offensive zone.

“Marcus quarterbacks our offense,” North Carolina head coach Joe Breschi said. “He organizes us, gets us in the right spots and keeps everybody on the same page, and he’s got the ability to shoot, score and feed. Jimmy is a dynamic player. He does a great job of being explosive off the dodge and causes matchup issues. Joey is just everywhere. He’s Mr. Utility. [Our attack] wreaks havoc as a group.”

After its tough test against the Tar Heels, Duke will play Towson (2-3) Saturday at home. The Tigers have suffered blowout losses at the hands of Loyola and No. 6 Johns Hopkins.