Men's lacrosse team brings home Loyola's first NCAA Division I Championship
To understand how the Loyola Greyhounds found themselves atop the NCAA Division I men’s lacrosse mountain this spring, and how a nearly perfect, 19-game ride ended with a dominant victory over Maryland to cap the greatest season in school history, take a look at how the Greyhounds handled their only stumble of the season.
In the aftermath of its 10-9, overtime loss to Johns Hopkins on April 28 in front of a loud, sellout crowd at the Ridley Athletic Complex, Loyola stayed strong. The Greyhounds, who had lost on a last-second goal after attackman Eric Lusby’s vicious, 10-yard shot had harmlessly struck pipe, did not sulk. The team was far too agitated to feel any hint of self-pity.
As several players faced the media in a postgame press conference, a crucial trip to the Rocky Mountains loomed. Just four days later, Loyola would begin its quest to win the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) Tournament by confronting conference rival Denver in the semifinals. To win the ECAC and secure a likely No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, Loyola would have to win twice in three days.
That’s when attackman Justin Ward, ’14, spoke up.
“I can hear the voices. I hear what the doubters are saying. ‘Oh boy, Loyola is in trouble now. They just lost to Hopkins, and now they’ve got to go out to play Denver with hardly any rest.’ I wish we were getting on the plane right now. I wish we were playing Denver tomorrow.”
With that, the Greyhounds, relieved of that undefeated status, were off and running. The team would not stop until it had made history by winning six more games in a row to finish with a school-record, 18-1 mark.
The culmination of what senior midfielder/faceoff specialist/co-captain J.P. Dalton would describe as “the most perfect year I’ve ever had” came in the last game, when Loyola rode its defense to a 9-3 rout over Maryland. The Greyhounds allowed the fewest goals ever in an NCAA final.
In hindsight, Loyola’s postseason really started with that Hopkins loss.
“The guys knew they didn’t play to their fullest potential,” said Head Coach Charley Toomey, ’90. “They realized if they didn’t play well, it could all be over.”
Loyola responded, first by scoring 28 goals in two games to win the ECAC tournament and grab that No. 1 seed. The Hounds blew away Canisius in the first round of the NCAAs and edged Denver 10-9 in the quarterfinals. Then they marked Loyola’s first trip to the semifinals in 14 years by grinding out a 7-5 decision over the University of Notre Dame.
All of which led to that emphatic dismissal of Maryland at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., where the Hounds held the Terps scoreless for the final stretch of 40 minutes, 40 seconds. Lusby, who set the 42-year tournament record with 17 goals and scored nine times at Gillette, put the finishing touches on his Most Outstanding Player award with four goals.
How did the Jesuit school on Charles Street rise so far, so quickly on the lacrosse field? How did seventh-year coach Toomey and his staff strike gold in a season that started with 12 consecutive victories and grew to magical proportions? How did Loyola, unranked in the preseason, climb so swiftly to become the best team in the land?
“I’ve never been around hunger like we had,” said Ward, who led Loyola with 31 assists. “Every guy on our team was hungry for the next win, the next practice, the next film session. We knew we had good stuff, but we never got big heads about it.”
“We knew we were pretty good before the season started,” said junior Scott Ratliff, the long-stick midfielder who spearheaded the sport’s best transition defense. “We kept winning games in different ways. By the time we got into the [NCAA] tournament, we felt we had the most complete, athletic team in the country.”
“The stage never got too big for us,” added Lusby. “I was surprised we weren’t more nervous with more jitters as the games got bigger. We just stayed calm.”
“Even back in the fall, it was a constant click. Everyone had the same mindset all year,” Dalton said. “Coach Toomey and his staff created the right environment. This is the greatest bunch of kids I’ve ever been around.”
On the field, the Greyhounds had all the trump cards—stick skills, smarts, size, speed, and consistency. The team could run by people in the open field with the ball, or pressure opponents relentlessly with their exceptionally quick defense. They simply had all the answers.
With sharp-shooting attackmen Mike Sawyer (the right-hander) and Lusby (the lefty) leading the offense by scoring a staggering combination of 106 goals—Loyola’s first pair of 50-goal scorers—the Greyhounds were pictures of unselfishness. Defensively, Loyola was a more unusual animal, with its blend of excellent communication, sound positioning, and explosiveness.
But it was off the field, away from the game-day spotlight, where Loyola’s championship mettle formed. It started with no-nonsense, businesslike leadership from captains such as Dalton, who refused to tolerate a lack of commitment on any work day from anyone. And it spread through a tight bond that strengthened among the Greyhounds from the beginning of the school year.
“As a group of individuals, they were the best team in the country. But they were all about doing things the right way and looking out for each other. I’ve never been around a team more focused coming out of the locker room,” Toomey said. “You could coach your whole life before you get a team like this. As coaches, we really didn’t have to manage the team this year. The juniors and the seniors did it. I never had to worry about any distractions ever. That’s special.”
The Greyhounds felt they had something special as early as last fall, even before they got to work as a unit on the field. The players and coaches went on a two-day, Campus Ministry trip to the University’s retreat house in the tiny Western Maryland town of Flintstone.
Shortly before arriving, the driver of the team bus got lost, and attempted to correct his course by turning around on a country road. The bus got stuck in heavy mud. Out came several dozen players to push, as the driver revved the engine and got the vehicle back on the road. Then, over two days of peace and prayer, player after player gripped the room by disclosing personal details about his life.
“Looking back, our whole team pushing that bus out of the mud was our first hoorah moment,” Ward said. “It was just us, nature, food, and prayer at the retreat. Seeing teammates crying, telling deep, dark stories about themselves or their families, or calling out a player in a positive way, was powerful.”
“The retreat was an eye-opener,” Hawkins added. “We really felt like a great group of brothers when we left there.”
The bonding threads multiplied. Later in the fall, players discovered that junior midfielder Sean O’Sullivan’s mother was in a perilous fight with pancreatic cancer, a fight she would lose in March. The entire team bused to her funeral in Northern Virginia.
And there was the presence of Paul Bagley, Ph.D., associate professor of philosophy, who has taught about half the team’s roster. Bagley made periodic trips to Ridley to speak to the team and emailed messages before games, such as “Own the field, own the day.” Sometimes the theme was uplifting encouragement. More often, Bagley addressed the need to stay grounded by managing success.
“As soon as Dr. Bagley would get on the turf at Ridley, we’d run over, sit down and listen to him talk,” Ward said. “Whether he’s being our philosophy teacher or our best friend, whether he’s picking us up or bringing us back to Earth, he has such a great sense of what to say.”
“There was something different about this group, just watching them interact with each other,” Bagley said. “They were no different from Jan. 15 through May. They came to do school work and they came to play lacrosse, and they were equally ready for both.
“They had a quiet confidence. There was nothing blustery or bold about them. They were never the big men on campus. I sensed there was a need to prove to other people who they were.”
The chip was never far from Loyola’s shoulders, starting in the preseason, when the Greyhounds chafed at being ranked outside the top 20.
During their steady ascent deep into the top 10, the Greyhounds made notable marks, such as a whipping of eventual NCAA Semifinal team Duke and an impressive, fourth-quarter comeback for an 8-6 win four weeks later at Fairfield—a tenacious ECAC opponent Loyola would destroy a month later in the conference title game. The Greyhounds also handed Denver nearly half of its seven losses by going 3-0 against a Pioneers team it had never beaten before 2012.
Yet, even though Loyola was one pipe shot away from being unbeaten, even though the Greyhounds entered the NCAA tournament top-ranked and top-seeded, with a top-five offense and a top-10 defense, they placed a grand total of two players—second-teamer Sawyer and third-teamer Ratliff—above honorable mention on the United States Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association All-America list.
“That was in the backs of our minds a little bit,” Lusby said. “It just reiterates the fact that some people wouldn’t give us enough credit.”
“We just held Maryland to three goals in the national championship game,” Dalton said. “We don’t need to say anything else. We got what we really wanted.”
The Greyhounds will be well-armed in their pursuit of more glory in 2013. With seven starters and 18 of its top 23 players returning, Loyola knows it has the right stuff for chasing another title. But next year, the Greyhounds will sneak up on no one. They could open the preseason ranked No. 1.
“We’ve got to continue the quiet confidence we had all last season. We can’t turn that into cockiness,” Hawkins said. “We’ve got to attack fall workouts even harder than we did last year. “We’ll have the target on our backs, and that has to make us work harder. We’ve got to want it even more. We’re excited to step up and take on that challenge.”
“When I think of this team, I think of how guys would come up to the coaches’ offices at night to make PBJ sandwiches and go over scouting reports, look at film, or just hang out and watch hockey,” Toomey said. “They didn’t want the season to end. Winning has a lot to do with that, but these guys were all about getting better every day.
“They enjoyed being the little school from Baltimore that did big things.”