The 11 seniors on Loyola Maryland's women's lacrosse team realize they didn't have enough confidence a year ago to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.
When they opened this season at 1-4, it seemed they didn't believe, but the problem wasn't confidence. They just needed to figure out how so many seniors could all step up without stepping on each other.
In their sixth game, the Greyhounds upset then-No. 8 Virginia in Charlottesville to begin what is now a 16-game winning streak, the longest in program history. They cruised into the NCAA tournament with Division I's longest active streak and they kept right on rolling — 21-3 past Bryant and 19-12 past a stunned fifth seed, Boston College — into Saturday's quarterfinal at fourth-seeded Syracuse.
No team had ever scored a combined 40 goals in back-to-back NCAA tournament games.
"Our confidence is unmatchable," said attacker Kara Burke, one of nine starting seniors. "We're going into this game like never before. In past years, it's been like, 'That would be so cool [to win a national championship] but probably not.' This year it's, 'OK, we're going.' That last game was the game that told us we could do this."
The Dulaney graduate had a lot to with that win, scoring eight goals against Boston College to tie an NCAA tournament record.
Burke scored five times as the Greyhounds built a 12-3 lead on an Eagles team that had knocked them out of the NCAA tournament in the second round last season. When the Eagles cut the lead to five, Burke scored twice within 27 seconds for a 15-8 lead with 9:50 to go.
On an offense that's been balanced throughout her career, Burke has rarely been in the spotlight, but she's emerged as the Greyhounds' go-to finisher down the stretch.
She averages 3.2 goals per game for the season but that's up to 4.25 in the past 12 games and 7.0 in the two tournament games. The Most Valuable Player of the Patriot League tournament, she has 68 goals —more than twice last season's total and just three away from Loyola's single-season record.
Burke, however, is the first to deflect credit all around a remarkably close senior class that is driving Loyola's bid for its first national championship.
She's one of three Greyhounds with at least 100 career goals, along with John Carroll graduate Annie Thomas and Hannah Schmitt — the first three Loyola classmates to reach that milestone together since 1987. Over the past four seasons, the trio along with Sydney Thomas, Molly Hulseman and Elizabeth Barranco (Severna Park) has scored 58 percent of the team's goals. Add redshirt senior Taryn VanThof and it goes up to 69 percent.
"It helps because if someone's not having her day or the other team's taking them out of the game, then the other six [attackers] will step up," Annie Thomas said. "It's not like we look to that one person to do everything and if that person's not doing anything, we shut down like it has been in the past. I've never played on a team like this, so it's really fun to know anyone can finish that ball."
As the team quarterback, Annie Thomas is the key to much of that finishing. She became the first Greyhound to record 100 goals and 100 assists. She also holds Loyola records for career assists (148) and single-season assists (51).
Van Thof's ability to win the draw has also been critical and coach Jen Adams credits her with not only being the team workhorse in the midfield but with being a vocal leader among leaders. In the Bryant game, she won 12 draws and she holds Loyola's single-season (122) and career records (316).
Senior defenders Julie Morse, Morgan Holleran and MC McDonald, along with redshirt senior Gretchen Mayer (Severna Park), are holding the opposition to 8.0 goals per game. Only four opponents have hit double figures and Boston College is the only one to do so since the 13-12 overtime win at Virginia on March 11.
Last year, the Greyhounds' game revolved largely around their All-America senior Marlee Paton, an Australia national team player and Loyola's emotional leader. After Paton graduated, the seniors had to figure out how leadership was going to work with so many veterans.
Burke and Thomas said everyone was willing to share, although it took a few weeks to work out just how.
In those early days, the Greyhounds beat Johns Hopkins in overtime but lost to Princeton and Penn State, also NCAA quarterfinalists, as well James Madison and Florida. The losses were by 10 total goals and Adams wasn't too concerned with the opening stumbles.
"I had this feeling all along it was going to take a little bit of time with this group as they figured out how to make so many good players mesh and work together," Adams said. "Sometimes you run into the battle of everyone trying to step up and be the key person on the team and with so many seniors and great players, that's how we started the season. They were trying to figure out how to make all their leadership styles, all their game abilities mesh and work together at the highest level. I think that's what you've seen over the last couple games."
As the Greyhounds head to Syracuse for Saturday's 1 p.m. game in the Carrier Dome don't expect the confidence to abate. They've beaten Syracuse already this season, 9-8 in their last regular-season game and they beat the Orange on the way to Big East tournament titles in 2011 and 2012.
"It's amazing what a big win that was against a team like Syracuse," said Sheehan Stanwick Burch, women's lacrosse analyst for CBS Sports Network and ESPN. "After coming off the ACC [championship], I thought Syracuse, with Kayla Treanor playing so well, was the emerging team and to beat them, I think is just awesome. Nobody was talking about Loyola and now everybody is."
Another win over the Orange would send the Greyhounds to the NCAA semifinals for the first time since 2003 and the seventh time in program history. They've reached the title game only once, in 1997, when they lost to Maryland, their potential opponent if they make it to the final four over Memorial Day weekend at PPL Park in Chester, Pa.
"We love playing in the Dome," Burke said. "Our freshman year, we won Big East there, so I think going out on that field is going to bring back that time when we beat Syracuse when they were ranked No. 2. For BC, it was like when we went on that field, we felt revenge from the year before [an 8-3 loss in the NCAA second round] and I think that kind of sparked our play. Even though it's different with the Dome, nine out of 11 starters are seniors and we know what it felt like to win on that field."