Last spring, Loyola found itself in uncharted territory.
After capturing the NCAA title in 2012, the Greyhounds entered last year as the reigning national champions. Naturally, that label raised the bar for the program and made it a marked target on opposing teams’ schedules.
The team went 11-4 in the regular season and 6-1 in the Eastern College Athletic Conference before losing, 12-11, in double overtime to eventual champion Duke in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Hindsight being 20/20, coach Charley Toomey acknowledged that navigating 2013 and dealing with the pressures of living up to expectations set by the NCAA crown proved difficult.
“I think a lot of people warn you about it, but it’s tough,” he said. “I have a new respect for those teams — like a Duke, a team that can do it year in and year out. There are teams fighting to get there on an annual basis, and we’re certainly one of those, but for a team like Duke and what coach [John] Danowski does down there is pretty remarkable. They continue to get better and better every year. We studied Alabama football after winning a couple championships and how they’re able to stay at a high level. Obviously this year, they played with that type of pressure and they didn’t get it done. We felt that last year. We felt that it was a team built to really go far. A couple in-season stumbles, and all of a sudden, you’re playing Duke in the first round. That game could have gone either way, we recognize that. But it was a year of missed opportunity. Where we made the most of our opportunities in 2012, I think we missed on a few opportunities in 2013. We’re going to have some of those opportunities in front of us [this season], and hopefully, we’ll make the most of them.”
Toomey indicated that the outside pressure filtered down to the players, who did not hesitate to call out teammates for the slightest errors.
“I think they’re talking to each other in that locker room in a very healthy way,” he said. “We’re demanding of each other and pushing each other to be the best that we can be, but we realize that we’re young and that we’re going to make mistakes, especially between the lines with how young our midfielders are. But I like the way we’re encouraging them to grow and develop. Last year, you had some juniors and seniors out there who were expected to make those plays, and if someone dropped the ball, you had three or four guys get on him quickly. It’s a good thing and it’s a bad thing. You want to have talented kids and you want to have seniors and juniors running around, but the locker room dynamic is really important. And the way that they’re pushing and talking to each other, I just like where we are as a group of guys.”
The expectations around this year’s squad might not be as high as last season’s, but Toomey said he has not lowered the bar for this spring.
“Quite honestly, I think we’re in a position where we can talk about league championships,” he said. “I think we’re in a position where we can talk about going back to the NCAA tournament. … I see us competing at a pretty high level. I don’t want to drop our expectations. I feel like recruiting has gone well over the past couple of years, and I’ve watched teams like Maryland win with young guys on the field. That’s what this team needs to do. They need to win with some new faces.”