Last weekend, Loyola's women's lacrosse team had the satisfaction of winning the Big East tournament by soundly beating then-No. 2 Syracuse in the final. The Greyhounds also had the satisfaction of knowing they exceeded the expectations of just about everyone except themselves.
The heart of a stingy defense returned from last year's NCAA quarterfinal team, but the Greyhounds graduated 10 seniors and 221 of 276 goals. They were picked to finish third in the Big East, largely because the offense would have to rely heavily on some of their 11 freshmen.
On paper, the Greyhounds appeared headed for a rebuilding season.
Loyola coach Jen Adams, however, doesn't believe in rebuilding seasons. Neither do her players.
"When we came in as freshmen, we were in the same situation," senior defender Ana Heneberry said. "Loyola was rebuilding and I remember Jen saying, 'This isn't a rebulding year for us.' That's the feeling we've had instilled in us. There's no excuses. We're not going to say, 'Well, we have a lot of freshmen so we weren't supposed to win that game.' We're supposed to win every game, because we're that good."
The Greyhounds have started four freshmen on offense all season. Three — Annie Thomas, Hannah Schmitt and Sydney Thomas — have started every game and rank second, third and fourth in scoring behind sophomore Marlee Paton, the team leader and Big East Midfielder of the Year.
It took a while for the attack to mesh and the transition game to click. By the final regular-season game, the Greyhounds were good enough to come within a goal of Syracuse, 13-12. A week later, they beat the Orange, 13-7, for their second straight Big East title. The win not only put the Greyhounds automatically into the 16-team NCAA tournament field, but it propelled them to the No. 6 seed and a first-round home game. They will host Penn on Sunday at 1 p.m.
For the freshmen, it was just a matter of learning the system and building their confidence.
After a roller coaster early season, the newcomers turned a corner in a 15-14 win at Georgetown on March 24. Annie Thomas scored the game winner — one of 10 goals from freshmen.
"I think Georgetown was a huge change for us," Schmitt said. "If you saw our games before that, our attack wasn't able to click as well, and I feel like we won that game because we finally all came together as a team. It was the start of the Big East schedule and we had more confidence. It just took a while."
The freshmen have scored 55 percent of Loyola's points and 54 percent of the goals. They're only the third Loyola freshman class to contrbute 100 goals (they've totaled 124). Annie Thomas and Sydney Thomas (no relation) are the top two in assists with 27 and 21 respectively, both surpassing Janet Eisenhut's 32-year-old freshman record of 19.
Annnie Thomas, a John Carroll graduate, is the top freshman point-getter in Division I with 63. Freshmen scored the Greyhounds' first six goals in the Big East final and Kara Burke, from Dulaney, had four goals and three assists after starting for another freshman, Molly Hulseman, who had started 15 games before she was sidelined with an injury.
Sheehan Stanwick Burch, a women's lacrosse analyst who worked the Big East tournament for the CBS College Sports network, said she was impressed by the diversity of the Greyhounds' offense.
"I would think if you could shut down Marlee, you would be successful," Burch said, "but they have a lot of other players that handle the ball. I don't think the focus needs to be on her. The freshmen looked a litle rattled in the first Big East tournament game, but they looked very comfortable in the second one."
Early on, the young group went though the typical growing pains faced by newcomers to the college game, but it was exacerbated by the need for them to contribute right away.
"It's hard in a way," Sydney Thomas said, "because the team did so well last year and losing so many seniors, you have to come in and automatically take a brand new role. It's a huge, huge responsibility."
It helped to have so many others in the same situation.
"It made the transition a lot easier knowing that there were 10 other girls beside me learning the game as well," Schmitt said. "We were there for one another and we definitely helped each other boost the confidence that we all knew each of us had. As freshmen, we were each other's support team."
Having that many freshmen in one unit presented a challenge to the coaching staff, especially after last season when Adams said a couple young starters filled a few gaps and learned from veterans all around them. With a structure in place, that team started off much further along.
Adams had faith in this freshman group and told the captains to be patient.
"I told them the team that you see in our first game against [Virginia] is not the team you're going to see in May and the Big East tournament," Adams said. "I think the team had a lot of faith as well, but the learning curve has been far superior to any other team I've coached in terms of seeing the improvement on a daily basis.
"I look back to the game against Virginia [a 14-9 loss] and we've transformed. So much of that comes from game experience, but also growing together as a team. Fall and preseason aren't enough to build that kind of chemistry and that kind of established sense of identity. It really does take some time to get some highs, get some lows and figure out what level of consistency they're willing and to play with every day."
The young attackers credit part of their quick advancement to the veteran defense they compete against every day in pracitice, including goalie Kerry Stoothoff, the two-time Big East tournament MVP.
Stoothoff said the education goes both ways.
"Like everyone says, they learned a lot," she said. "On the other hand we learn a lot from them, playing against such great youngsters every day. There was just a belief there. People didn't think we had a shot [at the Big East title] at the beginning of the year. It was great to beat [Syracuse]."
Now comes the challenge of sustaining that level of play, but Paton, who is only 20 but has a wealth of experience from playing on Australia's World Cup team, says her teammates are up to the challenge of their first NCAA tournament.
"From coming in having not so much experience to the way they played over the weekend, without knowing they were freshmen, I don't think anyone could have known," Paton said. "As they've gotten more comfortable throughout the season, not only with us but with the whole system and our game plan, they showed that confidence and they're not hesitant at all to take on anyone."