Jimmy Patsos can pinpoint the day when his Loyola basketball team began its ascent that ultimately brought the Greyhounds to the brink of the school's first NCAA tournament appearance in 18 years. It came two days after New Year's last season, during a game against Marist.
It was the night that Dylon Cormier, then a freshman out of Cardinal Gibbons, became Loyola's de facto captain.
"We had lost three in a row — to Howard, Georgetown and Bucknell — and he [Cormier] had been playing with mono," Patsos recalled Friday. "He was the one talking in the huddles, in the locker room, in practice. He was saying, 'We've got to do better than this.' He says the right stuff all the time. He's the emotional leader."
It is not surprising to Patsos that the Greyhounds have been a different team since. After starting 4-8 last season, Loyola won six of its next seven games and finished with a 15-15 record. Loyola followed that up by setting a school record for wins this season, at 24-8.
"We have been a much more competitive program since Dylon Cormier took over," Patsos said of the 6-foot-2, 176-pound shooting guard, who, along with senior Shane Walker, serves as this season's captains. "It's not a coincidence."
Cormier, 19, said that he could sense that his teammates were looking for someone other than Patsos to fire them up. "We were in a situation that someone needed to do it, and it happened to be me," said Cormier, a second-team All-Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference selection.
It was a role Cormier had often played growing up, a role his stepfather, Brian Smoot, had encouraged a then 13-year-old to embrace after leaving the Nike Elite AAU team for the Crusader Nations.
Smoot, who had played at Division II Millersville (Pa.) as well as in the United States Basketball League and the Eastern Basketball League, said he wanted his stepson "to be challenged more and not be in his comfort zone playing with all his friends."
The same was true at Cardinal Gibbons. Jeff Cheevers, who coached Cormier in high school, said that during Cormier's final two seasons at Gibbons, "he took the team on his shoulders and made sure that we were relevant in the [Baltimore] Catholic League. He carried us through some tough times."
Said Cormier: "I take a lot on my shoulders. I've always been like that."
At Loyola, Cormier has gone from being a solid contributor as a freshman — averaging 8.1 points and starting all but one of the 28 games in which he played — to being Loyola's second-leading scorer (13.4) behind junior forward Erik Etherly (13.5).
It is also not surprising to Patsos that Cormier has evolved into that role. After Cormier's senior year, Patsos said at a Baltimore Catholic League banquet — much to the consternation of former Loyola athletic director Joe Boylan — that Cormier "would start as a freshman" for the Greyhounds.
Comparing Cormier to former Maryland stars and Baltimore natives Juan Dixon and Keith Booth, whom Patsos helped coach as a longtime assistant under Gary Williams, Patsos said that Cormier "knows how to play. He really gets after it. He has that Baltimore swagger."
More importantly, Cormier has given the Greyhounds the same kind of toughness that Dixon and Booth gave the Terrapins during the program's highest point. And, like Dixon, Cormier is not afraid to give it right back to his coach when things get a bit heated.
"They're both extremely strong-willed," said Smoot, who works for FedEx and is in his third year as a referee in theMid-Eastern Athletic Conference. "They both want to win."
Said Patsos: "He's more like me than any of my assistants."
Cormier knew by the start of his senior year at Gibbons that he was headed to Loyola. He found Patsos' tough-love approach to his liking, but more importantly, he wanted to stay close to his family in Randallstown, particularly his younger brother, Chase, who recently finished his high school career at Milford Mill.
"Everyone likes to be the hometown hero," Cormier said.
Cormier's career at Loyola has followed a similar progression to his four years at Gibbons.
"He's always been extremely talented," said Cheevers, who left coaching to go into private business when Gibbons shut its doors in 2010. "Once he believes he is 'the guy,' he is going to explode. He'll start to feel that confidence that he is the best player on the court."
Said Cormier: "My stepfather said pretty much the same thing — it's just like Gibbons. Last year I kind of got my feet wet, and this year I grasped more things and played a bigger role. I think the same kinds of things will happen my last two years."
But Cormier is not worried about that. He is more concerned about leading Loyola into uncharted territory — the NCAA tournament.
"Coming from where we were last year, losing to St. Peter's in the opening round [of the MAAC tournament] and finishing .500, I really didn't think we'd be where we are now," Cormier said. "We've came a long way as a team."
Cormier said he has always watched the NCAA tournament, trying to follow those he played with and against during his high school days. The selection show to announce the seedings and pairings was another matter.
"Never was really interested," he said.
That will change Sunday, when Cormier and the rest of the Greyhounds gather at Reitz Arena to see where they will be going and who they will be playing. Cormier knows he will have to play better than he did during his team's last two victories in the MAAC tournament.
After scoring 23 points in the quarterfinals against Niagara, Cormier scored five points in each of the last two games, taking a total of 10 shots. Early foul trouble didn't help Cormier — or Etherly — in Loyola's grind-it-out, 48-44 win over Fairfield in the championship game.
"The last two games I wasn't being aggressive enough," Cormier said. "But other players stepped up and did a great job, just like we did all season."
Cormier does not have a preference as to who the Greyhounds might play in the NCAA tournament. Nearly all of the prognosticators have Loyola as a No. 15 seed, with a possible matchup against Duke or Michigan State.
"The one thing I know about Dylon is that he's not going to be intimidated playing against anybody," Cheevers said.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun