FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Loyola was an afterthought nationally when it embarked on its men’s lacrosse season more than three months ago.
Things won’t quite be the same next year. Not after the Greyhounds collected their first national championship.
“You see it with other teams that win the national championship and how everyone treats them,” midfielder Josh Hawkins said after Loyola throttled Maryland 9-3 in Monday’s national title game. “I’ve definitely noticed over this past month and a half what people do and say and act like toward you when you’re winning. It’s a special thing.”
Make no mistake, it was a special season.
The Greyhounds (18-1) won their first 12 games, came within a pinged pipe in overtime of toppling neighborhood rival Johns Hopkins, then rolled through May with six victories.
Loyola ranked eighth nationally in goals per game and fifth in goals allowed per game, a striking balance not fully appreciated until the Greyhounds’ championship weekend wizardry on defense secured a championship.
“It still feels like a dream, like it’s not happening,” junior long pole Scott Ratliff said. “It’s a pretty incredible feeling. It’s everything I expected it to be.”
The Greyhounds also were fortunate, as title teams often must be. Loyola started the same attack, midfield and close defense every contest. Three games in, goalie Jack Runkel claimed the starting job and never relinquished it. Hawkins missed the first four games with a back ailment, but the Greyhounds’ core group of contributors otherwise avoided serious injuries.
It led to Loyola’s best chance in more than a decade to finally secure the program’s first crown in 18 NCAA tournament appearances.
“It’s one thing to qualify for the tournament, which is difficult enough in itself,” said Loyola defensive coordinator Matt Dwan, who played for the Greyhounds in the early 1990s. “But then [we took] this step, which we did this year by winning against Canisius [in the first round], and then another step and another one and another one. They just happened to all come at once, so we’ll take it.”
The rapid ascent made Loyola a rare almost-out-of-nowhere champion in a sport with entrenched elite. Duke, the only other team since 1992 to win its first championship, did so in 2010 during its fifth final four in six years. Loyola was 11 years removed from its last postseason victory before this season.
Monday provided a potentially program-altering moment, a jolt of awareness about a school long overshadowed in its own city and state.
“It means I’m probably getting in the car to go recruiting tomorrow,” coach Charley Toomey said.
He’ll no doubt find a receptive audience.
“Any recruit you go in to try to get, he’s going to be interested in this program coming off a national championship,” Ratliff said. “With this coaching staff and the nucleus we’ve built - we have an amazing senior class, but we’re loaded with talent right now throughout all our classes, so I think the success will continue.”
Indeed, the Greyhounds are built to last. While senior attackman Eric Lusby, who scored a tournament record 17 goals this month, is a visible departure, only four of the 23 players to appear in Monday’s victory were seniors.
Attackman and Tewaaraton Award finalist Mike Sawyer will be back. So will Ratliff, Hawkins, midfielder Davis Butts and defensemen Reid Acton and Joe Fletcher. All earned at least honorable mention All-America status.
That’s a potent chunk of an outfit Toomey marveled at throughout the spring, more than once observing a coach could go his whole life and be lucky to have one team with the combination of discipline, toughness, selflessness and talent.
“I hope I lied to you,” Toomey said.
He’ll find out in 2013, and everyone in lacrosse will be watching from the start this time.
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