All-Maryland Final Set for Championship Monday
by Gary Lambrecht | LaxMagazine.com
|Tewaaraton Award finalist Mike
Sawyer has been overshadowed by hot-shooting Eric Lusby (18 points
in the NCAA tournament). Could Sawyer be primed for a big game
against Maryland? "I think he's ready to make it happen," teammate
Josh Hawkins said.
© Kevin P. Tucker
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Loyola University was unranked in most preseason top 20 men's lacrosse polls, and the Greyhounds have reflected on that perceived slight throughout the building stages of the most successful season in the program's Division I history.
The University of Maryland was supposed to be down a bit this spring, retooling somewhat after the exit of a huge senior class that carried the Terps to last year's NCAA championship game. And Maryland has collected a few warts along the path that has led to its 12-5 season.
But here they are, two schools from the same state, taking over center stage at Gillette Stadium in Monday's NCAA tournament title.
Here is Loyola (17-1) going after its first crown. Standing in its way is Maryland, the much bigger state school down I-95 about 35 miles from downtown Baltimore in College Park, where the Terps have been starved for a title since winning their only NCAA tournament in 1975.
The game marks the first time Loyola and Maryland have faced each other since Maryland defeated Loyola in the tournament semifinals in 1998, and it marks the first time two schools from the state of Maryland have battled in the season's final game since Johns Hopkins beat Maryland in 1979.
It features a feel-good story about two coaches – Loyola's Charley Toomey and Maryland's John Tillman – who are former Annapolis neighbors that remain close friends. Each spent part of their formative years coaching at Navy, where Tillman replaced Toomey in 1995.
Toomey, in his seventh season at Loyola, has led the Greyhounds to a school-record number of victories with an up-tempo offense and the killer, lefty-righty scoring combination of Eric Lusby and Mike Sawyer – Loyola's first pair of 50-goal scorers ever.
Tillman, who in his first two seasons at Maryland has become the first coach in tournament history to take an unseeded team to two national title games, has guided the Terps through the peaks and valleys that typically accompany a program with such a turnover in leadership.
"We've been best friends for many years. We own camps together. We pal around in the summer together," Toomey said. "He's a guy that maybe right now I wish I hadn't game-planned with [on the phone] throughout the season, because I think he knows us as well as we know him. John Tillman is one of those coaches I know is in my corner. Not on Monday."
"Charley is as good as they come in terms of character and friendship. He's a good coach. He's a better friend," Tillman said. "It's a little bit awkward in certain ways, but we realize what's at stake for both schools and for our guys and what they've invested. It's going to be a really tough challenge, because when you play the No. 1 seed and the No. 1 team in the country, they pose a lot of problems."
The contest represents the most consistent team this season against a scrappy band of Terps that get major points for toughness and tenacity, not to mention the huge improvement of its midfield rotation in the past month. All of these points were accentuated in Saturday's 16-10 demolition of Duke in the semifinals.
The Terps, after losing three of four games to its ACC competition and splitting two decisions with Duke, put aside penalty and turnover problems by blitzing the defensively-challenged Blue Devils with 16-for-29 shooting. Senior midfielder Drew Snider led the charge with four goals, and his final goal started the 6-0, second-half run that sank Duke.
Maryland, which also lost an early-season shocker to UMBC and dropped its regular-season finale to resurgent Colgate – later eliminated by Duke in a 17-6 quarterfinals loss – has regrouped and grown behind a youthful defense. The close unit is led by freshman Goran Murray and sophomore Michael Ehrhardt. Junior LSM Jesse Bernhardt and sophomore goalie Niko Amato, who will start his second NCAA final, form the backbone of the unit that has surrendered just 7.9 goals per game.
It will be interesting to see how effectively the Terps solve Loyola's offense, which might be due to explode after scoring just 17 goals in the Greyhounds' last two tournament wins – a modest output for a team ranked fourth in scoring offense.
Lusby, the left-handed sniper, sure hasn't been the problem. He has back-to-back, five-goal games and 13 goals and five assists in the NCAA tournament. But he's been pretty much a one-man show in Loyola's past two wins over Denver (10-9) and Notre Dame (7-5). Lusby has shot 10-for-18. The rest of the Loyola offense has shot 7-for-58.
"Eric's game has become effortless and smooth. Thirteen goals in three tournament games is absurd. He's just feeling it right now," said Josh Hawkins, Loyola's top short-stick defensive midfielder.
Is this the day that Sawyer, who has one goal in the past two games by still leads Loyola with 51, goes off?
"I think Mike is going to have a great game," Hawkins said. "I think he's ready to make it happen. Even being the No. 1 seed, we've had doubters and haven't been expected to win the games we have. Going into Monday, it really doesn't matter. We're here to win a national championship."
Not only will Maryland have to contend with Loyola's six-on-six offense. The Terps will have to counter the most potent transition defense in the game, starting with LSM Scott Ratliff and Hawkins, who have the green light to shoot on any break.
Not that the Terps can't run with Bernhardt and SSM Landon Carr leading their break. Not that Maryland, with resourceful seniors such as Snider and attackman Joe Cummings and junior midfielders John Haus and Mike Chanenchuk, won't test Loyola goalie Jack Runkel.
Amato likes Maryland's tournament pedigree over the past two years.
"I think the experience factor is helpful. Being in this game last year helped me settle in and calm my nerves [against Duke on Saturday] and manage some of the younger guys on the field.
"Like with Drew and Joe and some other guys that have played [in the final] I think we have good balance around the field. We've played against good teams before. Though Loyola is a talented team and well-coached, we've faced good players before, and we should be used to it."