As a lacrosse player and coach for nearly 40 years, Loyola Maryland’s Charley Toomey is used to dealing with the emotional swings in a game — but nothing like what he experienced over the weekend.
On Saturday night, Toomey’s Greyhounds had to withdraw from the Patriot League championship game because a Loyola player tested positive for the coronavirus, which seemed to signal the end of their season.
After a tumultuous 24 hours, Loyola (9-5) received a bid to play No. 7 seed Denver (12-4) in Colorado on Sunday in the first round of the 16-team NCAA Division I tournament.
“We have absolutely been on a roller-coaster for more than a week now,” Toomey said. “It started with the second half of the Georgetown game and has had plenty of twists and ups and downs since then. Obviously, Saturday night and Sunday were the lowest points, but I am very thankful that we have more time to be together.”
The selection of Loyola to the field is a mild surprise, but not startling. The Greyhounds were playing their best at the end of the regular season and had won four straight games before withdrawing Saturday night against Lehigh, the conference tournament’s top seed. One of those wins was an 11-9 victory against No. 5 Georgetown, an outcome that weighed heavily in Loyola’s favor.
The winner of the Patriot League tournament earns an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, but the Greyhounds’ hopes seemed to fade once they learned of coronavirus concerns. School administrators, medical staff and Toomey made the right decision deciding not to play and possibly infect other teammates and Lehigh players, but the result was devastating.
The decision to cancel the game came within a year of having had the 2020 season end prematurely because of the virus, and it had to be extremely painful for some of the seniors who chose to stick around for another season after the NCAA granted them an extra year of eligibility.
No one feels worse than the head coach. They take it personally because they believe they are responsible for every player in the program, and they have to deal with the emotions. It’s like choosing a play or formation in a game. When it fails, especially in crunch time, you’re always wondering what you could have done differently.
Oh, what could have been.
“Loyola did all the right things as far as making ethical and practical decisions,” said one member of the NCAA’s selection committee. “We heard they interviewed other Loyola players to see whom else might be infected, kept them social distanced, followed all other protocol and recommended to their own conference officials about not playing the championship game. We felt confident about the product they will put on the field in the postseason.”
Soon afterwards, the emotional pendulum began to swing the other way. On the way home from Lehigh in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Loyola officials thought they had a chance of obtaining one of the eight at-large bids in the tournament because of the late winning streak.
On Sunday night at 9:30 p.m., the Greyhounds received confirmation they were in the tournament. In the past, the selection committee has made some mistakes, but they got this one right.
University of Maryland lacrosse fans will complain because the Terps got the No. 3 seed and might have to play the most balanced team in the country, No. 6 seed Notre Dame, in the quarterfinals. At first glance, their argument might have some validity because Maryland was unbeaten in the Big Ten.
But there were no other quality teams in the conference except Rutgers, and the Scarlet Knights didn’t have a win against another prominent team because they, like Maryland, had to play a Big Ten schedule.
In reality, Rutgers (8-3), Loyola and Army (7-4) were competing for two at-large bids. Rutgers got one, and Loyola got the other, mainly because of the Greyhounds’ win over Georgetown at the end of the regular season and an 11-10 victory against Army in the Patriot League semifinals.
“We keep talking about how we have 72 more hours, 48 more hours after we won games against Navy and Army,” Toomey said. “Last night, Coach [Marc] Van [Arsdale] said to everyone that we had something like 160 more hours together this week. We want to keep adding to that number.”
Loyola is playing at its highest level so far this season. In the past, the Greyhounds have relied on a transition game to win, but earlier this season, the offense was stagnant. They didn’t have an attackman or midfielder who could win one-on-one matchups. Defensively, Loyola was slow in sliding to help, and goalie Sam Shafer was struggling.
But Van Arsdale, the offensive coordinator, started changing some things around before and during the Georgetown game. He cut down on attackmen trying to win against long poles and started getting get more short-stick matchups.
Opposing teams started having problems with players like attackman Aiden Olmstead (26 goals, 25 assists) coming out of the box. Once the ball moved faster, players dodged harder, which resulted in more goals for attackman Kevin Lindley (38 goals, eight assists) and midfielder Peter Swindell (18 goals, 13 assists). Loyola got midfielder Dan Wigley back from a leg injury and Shafer started playing well, which made defensive players Cam Wyers and Ryan McNulty more confident.
And then there is Toomey.
In his 16th season as head coach, he could have easily given up on this team when the Greyhounds were 5-4. No one outside the team would have cared. The excuses were already there. There was the coronavirus pandemic, and he could have easily pointed out that this team hadn’t recovered because of a shortened 2020 season. They also lost two of the top players in the team’s recent history, goalie Jacob Stover and attackman Pat Spencer, in 2019.
Instead, the Greyhounds are riding what was an unwanted wave of momentum into the NCAA tournament.
Toomey might never see anything like this again.
NCAA tournament first round
LOYOLA MARYLAND@NO. 7 SEED DENVER
Sunday, 7:30 p.m.
Latest Mike Preston