Top Dogs: Loyola Downs Maryland for National Title
|Davis Butts celebrated Loyola's
first NCAA Division I title with the crowd at Gillette Stadium on
Monday after the Greyhounds took apart Maryland in a 9-3
© Kevin P. Tucker
by Gary Lambrecht | LaxMagazine.com
NCAA Division I Men's Championship
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Loyola University junior attackman Justin Ward was breathing in the moment, standing and squinting in the hot sun beating down on the field at Gillette Stadium, while teammates celebrated all around him.
Yes, it was sinking in for Ward. Yes, the Loyola Greyhounds, who had started the year unranked with much to prove, had just finished making their point after a determined climb to No. 1 and top seed in the NCAA tournament.
Two days after digging down for a low-scoring, hard-fought victory over Notre Dame, Loyola took apart unseeded Maryland with a 9-3 victory that brought Loyola the first NCAA title in its Division I history. With the remarkable Eric Lusby leading the offense by scoring four goals, and the Greyhounds' dominant defense doing the rest in front of 30,816 fans, Loyola (18-1) left no doubt about who was top dog in 2012.
And as he stood amidst the postgame euphoria, Ward's mind drifted back to when it all began, nearly six months ago, on a late-fall day when Loyola learned its youthful team had been ranked No. 21 in a preseason poll.
"It was the last day of the fall, and being ranked 21st, that stung for sure. It made a lot of us pretty angry," Ward recalled. "We did 21 sprints for the teams ranked ahead of us. We felt like this program hadn't gotten the respect it deserved from a lot of people. That really sunk in our belly. I think we had some fire in there for the rest of the year."
The flame was burning strong throughout Memorial Day weekend, when one of the best offensive men's lacrosse teams in the country spent the holiday proving it was pretty sharp in other areas. By the time Loyola had suffocated unseeded Maryland, the Greyhounds had topped off their historic season with an emphatic point.
Loyola knows defense. Just ask the Terrapins, who last scored early in the second quarter and are still looking for their next goal after going scoreless for the game's final 40:40. Just ask the Terps, who ran into a brick wall in the form of goalie Jack Runkel, a close defense led by Joe Fletcher and Reid Acton and a defensive midfield sparked by LSM Scott Ratliff and short-stick man Josh Hawkins.
"Where do you start? Where do you stop? We won every single matchup [with our defense]," said Loyola head coach Charley Toomey, who watched Maryland get just two goals on offense and nothing from its starting attack. "Our short sticks [Hawkins and Pat Laconi] were in the best condition of anyone on the field. Jack Runkel [six saves] just stood tall. We knew Maryland wasn't going to let us run on offense, and we were ready to play a lot of defense. What a special group."
Make no mistake. The Greyhounds (18-1) are celebrating their first Division I championship largely because Lusby completed an incredible NCAA tournament run by personally out-scoring Maryland.
Lusby was the runaway winner of the tournament's most outstanding player award, and he set a record for tournament scoring with 17 goals, including nine goals in the season's last two games. He finished the season with 54 goals. On the season's last day, Lusby passed teammate Michael Sawyer, who scored once against Maryland and wound up with 52 goals.
Loyola is celebrating its best season ever because the Greyhounds played calm and unselfishly with limited possession time early. In a display of maximum efficiency, Loyola got six goals from six different players, while taking a 6-3 lead that felt huge after three quarters, on a day when they would lose 12 of 15 faceoffs.
But it was the Greyhounds' defense that dropped the hammer on Maryland and put the exclamation point on a near-perfect spring.
"We aren't the fastest team. That was one of our concerns coming into the year," said Maryland head coach John Tillman, who is the only coach to take an unseeded team to back-to-back final fours.
"We have to play at a good pace. We have to be strategic with picks to gain leverage, because one-on-one, we're not the greatest dodging team. That's why we have to have attention to detail with setting picks, slipping, moving, cutting, so we can get the defense rotating. We just couldn't get [Loyola's defense] rotating."
The Greyhounds simply refused to slide, since they didn't need to. With Ratliff sticking to senior midfielder Drew Snider like glue (and holding him scoreless) and Hawkins hounding midfielder John Haus into a scoreless game, the Terps were reduced to taking tough shots from bad angles. The Terps missed cage on 19 of their 29 attempts.
Loyola's knockout blow was memorable. In the middle of Lusby's fourth-quarter hat trick that made it 9-3, Hawkins literally knocked out Maryland LSM Jesse Bernhardt after setting a clean pick 25 yards from the Maryland goal. Bernhardt never saw Hawkins' shoulder as he dipped his chin and made contact. He was briefly knocked out cold, before being helped off the field with 8:14 left.
At that point, it essentially was over. Loyola would finish its year by allowing just eight goals in its last two games, and 22 goals in its 4-0 tournament run.
"It's been a dream of mine since I was a little kid. We didn't want to say anything [beforehand], but we knew we were going to win the national championship," said senior midfielder, faceoff man and co-captain J.P. Dalton, who won only four of 26 faceoff attempts at the final four, yet was all smiles on Monday.
"I knew it last fall," he added. "There was a constant click. No outside issues. Everyone was together with the same mindset all year. It was just the right environment. It's the most perfect year I've ever had."