Nearly 1,000 people showed up recently at Loyola College's 3,000-seat Curley Field to watch the Greyhounds play Navy in lacrosse. Nothing special, right? But consider it was the second week in February, it was cold and it had rained all day. And this was only a scrimmage.
"This has been a strange preseason," said Loyola coach Dave Cottle, whose team is co-No. 1 with Syracuse in The Sun's preseason poll.
"Well, the other day I had a Johns Hopkins alumnus call, and he wished us the best of luck," said Cottle.
Maybe this is the season for Loyola to be No. 1.
Everything seems to be in place. The Greyhounds return seven starters, including three All-Americans, from last year's 11-3 team that was the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I runner-up. They may have the best attack in the country, and Cottle is one of the most dynamic coaches in the game.
The rest of the team is solid, the depth superb. Loyola plays a fairly easy schedule, and three-time defending champion Syracuse has lost the Gait brothers, top attackman Greg Burns and starting goalkeeper Matt Palumb.
All of this makes Loyola the team to beat.
Brown coach Dom Starsia said: "You give Syracuse the benefit of the doubt until somebody beats them, but they aren't going to dominate like last year. They are closer to the pack. Loyola is so very talented offensively and they have a lot of people back. This could easily be their year."
"Loyola has just about everybody back, and they now know what it's like to get there," Hofstra coach John Danowski said. "Dave doesn't want to take the heat early, but why not Loyola?"
"There's no doubt that parents, players, the student body and the coaches are excited about this program," said Cottle, 35, who has built a national power. "You see, seven years ago, we weren't the trophy. Now, everybody is shooting for us. The No. 1 ranking is a compliment to the players, parents, coaching staff and administration for a maturing program.
"But we can't be too concerned with preseason ranking and forecasts," said Cottle. "Look down our roster. We don't have any players in the caliber of the Gaits, plus we're still a young team [13 juniors, 13 sophomores]. For this team to be good, everyone has got to play to their fullest potential. I'd be disappointed if we didn't reach that level and didn't make the Final Four. But, right now, we need to maintain a good work ethic. We've got a way to go."
Cottle, whose team lost, 21-9, to Syracuse in the championshigame last season, may have shortened the way during the off-season. The first thing he did was to make sure the Gaits, midfielders Paul and Gary, had used up their eligibility.
Then, he had the Greyhounds work with strength coach Andre Miller three days a week at 5:30 a.m. Next, Cottle hired former Johns Hopkins head coach Don Zimmerman, who resigned in June, as his offensive coordinator.
Remember Zimmerman? Three national championships in seveyears. Even though it's still Cottle's movement-without-the-ball offense, Zimmerman has helped the Greyhounds work on the fast break, getting their midfielders more involved in the offense and other "little things."
Finally, Cottle made sure his team scrimmaged Syracuse last falin the Carrier Dome, site of the 1991 Final Four and where the Orangemen have won 26 consecutive games.
"Immediately after the championship game, I tried to evaluate why we lost," said Cottle, in his ninth season. "Even more of a factor than the Gaits was Syracuse's strength. We didn't have the strength to compete with them. Now, we've added an average of about five to seven pounds per player."
Greyhounds senior defender Scott Oslislo said: "Coach Zimmerman has a great, great offensive mind, and he has that knowledge of what it takes to win a national championship. We're really lucky to have him. Besides teaching the mechanics, he's great at developing plays off game situations. He constantly drills and has these little phrases that help you doing the game. He stresses the little things, tricks that give you the edge."
Zimmerman has made a potent offense even more dangerous. Senior Chris Colbeck (40 goals, 12 assists) and junior Jim Blanding (32, 28) emerged as two of the finest attackmen in the country last season. They will team with sophomore attackman Kevin Beach (21 goals), who has added 15 pounds, carrying 220 on his 6-foot-4 frame.
The three give Cottle a perfect blend: Colbeck is good on the crease, Beach the best dodger and Blanding an outstanding feeder.
The Greyhounds will miss All-American Brian Kroneberger at midfield, along with three other role players, Ted Nichols, Tony Pavlik and Chris Gunkel. But senior co-captain Sean Smith and sophomore Paul Cantabene are solid players who started and scored 10 goals each last season.
Sophomores Kevin Anderson and Dan Burnam will battle for the third spot at midfield and redshirt freshman Gene Ubriaco and junior Fred Haas, a transfer from Essex Community College, could see plenty of playing time.
But if Loyola is to win a national championship, most of thpressure will be on the defense, which returns intact, with Oslislo, Tom Johnson and Sean Quinn.
Loyola usually plays zone defense, but has had trouble in postseason play with teams that have taken early leads and forced the Greyhounds into man-to-man.
Also, Loyola has a new goalie, junior Tim Dunnigan, who played only 128 minutes last season.
"I'm just not sure you can win a national championship with just zone," said Cottle. "We've evaluated our priorities and put more emphasis on man-to-man."
Cottle says his team also is in search of a leader, another Kroneberger. It was Kroneberger who delivered the pre-game speeches and who occasionally argued with Cottle. It was Kroneberger, a day before the national championship game, who told reporters he was going to stage a fight with a Syracuse player to get his team fired up.
"We're still looking for the person who wants to be in that unpopular position," said Cottle, "the one who needs to say what needs to be said and doesn't care."
The Greyhounds also have to guard against letdowns. Last year, they lost to Brown and Penn State. This year, everybody is gunning for Loyola.
"No, we're not thinking about how good we're supposed to be,said Colbeck. "What we're thinking about is the opportunity we can have if we work hard. For years, we just played for respect. It was always the guys up the street, Johns Hopkins, getting all the press.
"Now, we don't have to fight for respect anymore," said Colbeck. "Coach Zimmerman tells us every day we're now the biggest team on a lot of schedules. We got a taste of it last year, what it felt like to play and lose in the title game. That's our new piece of motivation, to get back and try for it one more time."