All the pregame chatter about the difficulty of beating the same opponent three times in a single season was of little importance to the Loyola men's lacrosse team. What mattered was winning the last — and most important — meeting.
The No. 1 seed Greyhounds rode the hot stick of senior attackman Eric Lusby and survived a fourth-quarter rally to outlast Denver, 10-9, in an NCAA tournament quarterfinal Saturday at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis.
An announced 13,390 — the fourth-largest crowd ever at an NCAA quarterfinal — watched Loyola improve to 16-1 and advance to the semifinals for the since 1998. The Greyhounds will meet the winner of Sunday's quarterfinal between No. 4 seed Notre Dame (12-2) and No. 5 seed Virginia (12-3) at PPL Park in Chester, Pa.
Loyola, however, couldn't relax until the final buzzer sounded; the Pioneers (9-7) scored the game's final three goals to shave a four-goal deficit to one. The Greyhounds' decision to hold onto the ball nearly backfired as they couldn't avoid turnovers or ill-timed shots, giving Denver chances to send the contest into overtime.
But Loyola sophomore goalkeeper Jack Runkel stopped a shot by freshman midfielder Wes Berg from the left side of the crease with 1:06 remaining. And after the Pioneers collected a turnover caused when junior midfielder Davis Butts tried to score on a turnaround jump shot from the left wing, Greyhounds sophomore defenseman Joe Fletcher blocked a shot by junior midfielder Cameron Flint from the top of the slot with about 15 seconds remaining to cement the victory.
Afterwards, coach Charley Toomey's voice brimmed with emotion about what he had just watched Loyola achieve.
"It's hard for me not to get emotional because this team has worked so hard for so long together through good times and bad this spring," he said. "They stayed together, they stayed the course. They've enjoyed each moment together, and I'm just so proud of them."
With Denver using freshman defenseman Carson Cannon to shut off junior attackman Mike Sawyer, a Tewaaraton Award finalist who was limited to one goal on nine shots, Lusby filled the void by tying career highs in both goals (five) and points (six).
The Severna Park native and graduate scored three of the Greyhounds' four extra-man goals and had a hand in their final three goals of the contest (scoring twice and assisting on a goal by Butts).
"Denver definitely came in with a game plan to shut Mike off," Lusby said. "So that takes one guy away from their slide package. When they do that, they're moving so much, and I kind of found myself on the receiving end of a lot hard dodges from our middies. And with them drawing my guy, I was just getting open and getting my hands free."
Another factor in Loyola's victory was the play of senior J.P. Dalton (St. Mary's), who had won just five of 14 faceoffs in the team's 17-5 rout of Canisius in the first round a week ago. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound Dalton used his six-inch, 30-pound advantage over Chase Carraro to negate the Pioneers junior and help the Greyhounds win 17 of 22 draws.
"I figured out the last time we played them how I wanted to face off against him," Dalton said, referring to his 14-for-30 effort in a 14-13 overtime win at Denver in an Eastern College Athletic Conference tournament semifinal May 2. "He had me pretty good in the first game, and he's an excellent faceoff guy and he deserves a lot of credit. But I kind of got the feeling of how to go against him the second time, and then the third time I was able to get the clamps on him."
Berg paced Denver with a team-high four points (two goals and two assists), senior attackman Mark Matthews scored three times and freshman goalkeeper Ryan LaPlante finished with a game-high 14 saves. But the Pioneers were penalized 10 times for 7:30, while Loyola was flagged just twice for 60 seconds. Even Denver coach Bill Tierney was assessed a 30-second penalty for bench misconduct.
Asked about the difficulty of playing with such a lopsided disparity in penalties, Tierney would only say, "It's absurdly difficult."