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Despite No. 1 seed, Loyola could face tough road through NCAA lacrosse tournament

In the last moments of Loyola's 14-7 thumping of Fairfield in the final of the Eastern College Athletic Conference tournament eight days ago, Charley Toomey was curious.

The Greyhounds coach was interested in seeing how his players would react to capturing an elusive championship that had been claimed by Denver in each of the previous two seasons. What he witnessed left him satisfied and impressed.

"Our guys didn't throw their helmets in the air and didn't throw their gloves in the air," Toomey recalled Thursday. "They were excited to have the [automatic qualifier], but their attitude showed that there's a lot more that needs to take place. That was what I was so excited to see. … This team had the attitude of, 'OK, we get to play a game at home.'"

Loyola (14-1) earned that right as a result of being named the No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. The team will begin its quest for the program's first national championship by playing host to Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference champion Canisius (6-7) at 5 p.m. Saturday at Ridley Athletic Complex.

Getting awarded the top seed in the tournament implies an easier path deep into the tournament with weaker foes in the early rounds before potentially meeting more formidable opponents later.

But the No. 1 seed doesn't ensure a NCAA championship. A top seed hasn't won the national title since Virginia did it in 2006.

It's a historical trend that Toomey good-naturedly entertained after the bracket was unveiled Sunday night.

"I guess we're going to try to beat the trend," he said in a conference call. "We've broken a lot of trends this year. We weren't even supposed to be here. I'm not really going to worry about that with this group, and I don't feel like I have to. They don't worry about past history. This is a new team and this is a new group of kids, and certainly a group of kids that hasn't worried about things they can't control. ... So what we can control is this week's preparation."

Being the favorite in the tournament can invoke pressure. School administrators, alumni and fans can prematurely begin to dream about a national title, and those expectations can pop up in articles, Internet message boards and conversations that can seep into the locker room.

"I think externally, when you're awarded that No. 1 seed, fans, the media immediately say, 'That's the team to beat. They're the No. 1 seed. They've got an easy draw.' I think as coaches and players, none of us talked about being the No. 1 seed," said Blue Jays coach Dave Pietramala, whose teams have been the top seed five times and who has guided the school to NCAA championships in 2005 and 2007. "At this time, seedings don't mean anything. Records don't mean anything. … It's a one-game tournament, and in one game, anything can happen. So I think your approach has got to be defined by preparation."

Toomey and senior midfielder J.P. Dalton insisted that they have kept any pressure from external sources at bay. In fact, Dalton said, the players are motivated by having been unranked in the preseason and questions about whether the Greyhounds deserved the top seed.

"No one thought we were going to be anywhere near where we are right now," the Queenstown native and St. Mary's graduate said. "We've had a lot of people doubt our ability and doubt where we belong in the league. That really doesn't bother us at all. We understand the way people think about things, but we're just going to take it game by game and we're just going to work towards being the best team we can be."

This is the third time Loyola has been a No. 1 seed. The program is 1-2 as the top seed and advanced to the final four in 1998 before getting bounced from the quarterfinals in 1999 by Syracuse.

Dave Cottle, who was the coach of those Greyhounds squads in 1998 and 1999, said he doesn't sense that this season's team is burdened by that history.

"The only thing you want to do if you're Charley is you want to make sure you play Loyola lacrosse," Cottle said. "It was good enough to get you that far, and when it's all said and done and you put your head on your pillow, if you played a great game and got beat, that's OK."

ESPN analyst Quint Kessenich said the Greyhounds were deserving of the No. 1 seed. But he also thinks that Johns Hopkins, the No. 2 seed, might have an easier road to the final four.

"The challenge for me would be Loyola's quarterfinal game because if they're playing Denver for a third time of the year and they've beaten them twice already, that's going to be tough," the former Johns Hopkins All-America goalie said. "It's just so tough to beat a league rival, a well-coached Bill Tierney team three times. I actually like Loyola more if [No. 8 seed North] Carolina is able to beat Denver [Saturday night]. And then after that, I think Loyola can stand toe-to-toe with [No. 5 seed] Virginia and [No. 4 seed] Notre Dame."

edward.lee@baltsun.com

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