May 31, 2012

Lambrecht: Loyola Had Answer for Everything in 2012

by Gary Lambrecht |

Eric Lusby's postseason emergence was just one of many examples of Loyola's season-long display of championship mettle, writes Gary Lambrecht.
© Bryce Vickmark

NCAA Division I Men's Championship

* Top Dogs: Loyola Downs Maryland for National Title
* Lusby Breaks Tournament Scoring Record

* Terps Offense Dries Up in Another Title Game Loss
* Toomey, Tillman Finish Bittersweet Afternoon
* UnCensered: Hawkins, Ratliff Fueled Loyola's Run
* Live Blog Replay

Great teams have a way of figuring things out as the road gets harder. The Loyola Greyhounds were a study in that ability, which explains largely why Loyola is atop the Division I men's lacrosse world with its first NCAA championship.

Nobody reaches the summit without some exceptional talent. The Greyhounds had it all, from the dynamic scoring duo of Mike Sawyer and Eric Lusby, to their lunch-pail midfield units led by the underrated Davis Butts, to their numbingly good close defense, to the best defensive midfield group in the land anchored by LSM Scott Ratliff and SSM Josh Hawkins, to goalie Jack Runkel, their 6-feet-3 pillar in the cage.

But the Greyhounds finished their remarkable 18-1 journey as the last team standing, largely because they had the most adaptable roster in the NCAA tournament, despite having only a handful of seniors with meaningful playing time.

Watching Loyola plow through Notre Dame and Maryland at Gillette Stadium with discipline and calm efficiency that belied their youth and tournament inexperience had me wondering why knowledgeable observers kept stubbornly picking against Loyola. It had me baffled as to what USILA voters were seeing as they recognized the top-ranked, top-seeded Greyhounds with the backs of their hands.

Loyola had no first-team All-Americans, and only two players above the overpopulated honorable mention category – Sawyer (second team) and Ratliff (third). For a team that was ranked in the top five on offense and top 10 on defense all year, that level of ignorance/disrespect still mystifies.

The Greyhounds, who were one shot on pipe (in their 10-9, overtime loss to Johns Hopkins) shy of being the only undefeated team in the nation, simply had an answer for everything in 2012.

Mike Sawyer got cold in the postseason, as did every Loyola shooter besides Eric Lusby, who filled the void with a record-setting 17 goals in Loyola's four-victory march to the title. In its last three tournament victories, Greyhounds not named Lusby made just 12 of 78 shots (15.4 percent).

Senior midfielder J.P. Dalton struggled mightily facing off on Memorial Day weekend. The Greyhounds kept digging in and getting the ball back. Maryland stalled relentlessly to slow down Loyola. The Greyhounds still found ways to score quickly with minimal possession time, while taking a demoralizing, 5-3 halftime lead on the Terps.

In terms of their 19-game body of work, the Greyhounds won big early in the season while mostly playing at their preferred pace – fast and faster, with 40-plus shots on goal. But by midseason, opponents started taking the air out of the ball and testing Loyola's offensive patience and ability to play long stretches of defense. Loyola responded at the season's midpoint with tight wins over visiting Ohio State (8-7 score) and at Fairfield (8-6).

To me, Loyola advertised its championship mettle over a defining, 18-day stretch, with trips to Denver as bookends. On April 14, despite losing 21 of 25 face-offs, the Greyhounds forced enough turnovers and made enough shots to come from behind and beat the Pioneers going away, 12-9.

Two weeks later, with a 12-0 record in front of a sellout home crowd, Loyola started slowly, fell behind Hopkins 5-0, but never rattled. With a thrilling, fourth-quarter rush, Loyola forced overtime. Lusby, of all people, missed a wide-open, 12-yarder from dead center by hitting pipe. Hopkins never gave up the ball and handed the Greyhounds their only blemish in the closing seconds of OT.

Four days later on May 2, there was Loyola, in the Rocky Mountains again, in the middle of final exams, coming off of minimal practice time, yet stunning Denver by taking a 13-6, fourth-quarter lead in the semifinals of the ECAC tournament. The Greyhounds nearly ran out of gas while blowing that lead. But Ratliff ended the suspense quickly in overtime, and Loyola hit the NCAA tournament flying as the top seed after destroying Fairfield, 14-7, two days later to win the ECAC.

The Greyhounds crushed first-round NCAA tournament opponent Canisius with 13 straight second-half goals to roll to a 17-5 rout. But it was defense, intelligence and excellent survival skills that would underscore the rest of Loyola's run into the history books.

First, there was the unenviable task of beating Denver a third time in the quarterfinals. Loyola won, 10-9, because it played smarter on a day when its offense was barely up to snuff. Lusby stepped up with five goals, as the rest of Loyola shot 5-for-38. Three Lusby scores were EMO goals, thanks to Denver's remarkably undisciplined, 10-penalty day.

The individual star of the final four was undoubtedly Lusby, who accounted for nine of Loyola's combined 16 goals against Notre Dame and Maryland. Loyola's defense, however, was the real star throughout a weekend in which the Greyhounds lost 25 of 29 faceoff attempts.

With close defensemen Joe Fletcher, Reid Acton and Dylan Grimm sticking to opposing attackmen, with Hawkins and fellow SSM Pat Laconi providing maximum harassment on the wings, and with the menacing Ratliff controlling the middle as equal parts cover guy, takeaway artist and fast-break igniter, the Greyhounds funneled shots relentlessly to the physically imposing Runkel.

Most of Runkel's 22 saves over the last two games looked routine. That was a testament to a spot-on defense that rarely had to slide. Loyola held Notre Dame and Maryland to combined 8-for-57 shooting (14 percent) and never blinked while the Greyhounds went scoreless for the final 26:40 in their 7-5, semifinals victory over the Irish.

Loyola saved its most emphatic answer for its final assignment, during which it shut out Maryland over the game's final 40:40 and set the tournament record for fewest goals allowed in a championship game.

It was altogether fitting that Lusby finished his career with four goals, including a hat trick in the fourth quarter that iced Loyola's dominant, 9-3 victory, leaving the Greyhounds with no more questions to answer.

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