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College Sports

Loyola Maryland men’s soccer ends postseason jinx, takes aim at first Patriot League tournament crown

Graduate student defender Jacob Denison celebrates after scoring the game-winning goal in a penalty kick shootout to send top-seeded Loyola Maryland to a victory over No. 6 seed Army West Point on Tuesday night at Ridley Athletic Complex in Baltimore.

When Jacob Denison laced the seventh and final penalty kick into the top right corner of the net to send the top-seeded Loyola Maryland men’s soccer team to a victory over No. 6 seed Army West Point in a Patriot League tournament semifinal Tuesday night, he buried almost a decade’s worth of postseason futility.

The win — technically a 0-0 tie in double overtime with a 7-6 result in the penalty kick shootout — was the Greyhounds’ first in the conference tournament since joining the Patriot League in 2013. They will vie for their first tournament championship when they welcome American to Ridley Athletic Complex on Saturday at noon.

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“In my head, I was like, ‘Finally,’” said Denison, a graduate student defender from Gaithersburg. “That was the only thing I could think of. I was happy for the program, and I was happy for everyone that’s been supporting us and cheering us on and wanting to see us get to the finals for the chance to do something we’ve never been able to do.”

Even more remarkable is that since 2016, Loyola had finished either first or second in the regular-season standings, but suffered upsets in the tournament semifinals each year. The 2017 and 2018 squads had captured the regular-season titles and the 2020-21 team had collected the South Division crown during a coronavirus pandemic-truncated season, but none were able to get out of the semifinal round.

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Coach Steve Nichols, a 1992 graduate, said Tuesday night’s victory lifted a weight off the players.

“I think that was massive for them,” he said. “I think they overcame something that night that they had been a part of since they’ve been here. I was worried as hell during the game. I can’t step between the white lines and play for them. And being an alum here and having so much pride in our program, it eats away at you. And I wanted it for them. It wasn’t about me. It was about them.”

The program’s torturous history in the playoffs was noticeable even to the players who are relatively new to the school.

“I’ve kind of felt the pain of losing in that semifinal,” said graduate student Justin Ingram, the Patriot League Midfielder of the Year who transferred from Virginia in 2019. “I know that a lot of guys have been here for a while, and I think there was definitely a feeling within the locker room that this is the year we could get it done. We felt really confident going into it. There was just a different feeling within the group than what we’ve kind of had in the past, just more togetherness as a group. I think that translates directly to the results on the field.”

Graduate student defender Jacob Denison celebrates with his teammates after scoring the game-winning goal in a penalty kick shootout to send top-seeded Loyola Maryland to a victory over No. 6 seed Army West Point Tuesday night at Ridley Athletic Complex in Baltimore.

Despite winning their third regular-season title in five years, the Greyhounds (9-6-3) appeared “nervy” in the first half against the Black Knights, according to Nichols. So the coach urged his players to find their confidence. After outshooting Army 14-8 and earning seven corner kicks to the Black Knights’ three, the game was scoreless through regulation and two overtime sessions.

After both sides converted their first six penalty kicks, Army’s seventh attempt sailed over the net. Ingram gave Denison a brief pep talk before his try.

“I was the last one to say anything to Jacob before he went up there to take it, and I said, ‘Just be calm. You can’t lose it for us here. All you can do is win it. So be calm when you step up there,’” Ingram recalled. “I had full faith in him, and when it went in, it was a relief.”

Denison said Ingram’s words had a soothing effect on him.

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“I just took a deep breath and went with my gut and just shot it,” he said. “Justin definitely helped me calm down a little bit, and it didn’t feel like I was up against the wall. I felt like I had only everything to gain and nothing to lose.”

Nichols has learned to anticipate unpredictability in the postseason. But he said his confidence in the current group of players did not waver Tuesday night.

“During those moments, there was this calm inside of me because this group has character,” he said. “It has a maturity about them that I haven’t seen in years past, and I think it was evident when they made all seven penalty kicks, which is shocking. You don’t see that very often either. So I don’t think they flinched.”

Whereas opponents have tried to flood the defensive zone with all 11 players and take their chances with a rare breakaway or set piece, American (9-4-4) has been a more opportunistic team that refuses to sit back and wait, according to Nichols. Loyola won their regular-season meeting, 3-0, on Oct. 12, and Denison predicted that the win against Army has liberated him and his teammates.

“I think it’s full steam ahead,” he said. “I think that was the hump we needed to get over. I think going into that game, we were confident in ourselves, but obviously we were aware of the past. Now we’re entering uncharted water, but with the mentality that we have and the belief that we’ve instilled in each other, I think we can accomplish big things. I think that game definitely helped the team.”

As welcomed as Tuesday night’s victory was, Ingram insisted the team is far from content.

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“We also understand that we’re not done,” he said. “We haven’t accomplished our goal yet.”

Nichols said even though Wednesday was a voluntary day for the players, every one of them showed up for treatment or weightlifting. He said that is another sign of their commitment.

“Now that they got over that hump, the belief is, ‘Hey, we got over it, and this is our year,’” he said. “You could see a couple days before Army, they were nervous, and there were some questions like, ‘Hey, are we going to get through this?’ Now it’s like, ‘Hey, this is our year. We’re going to get this thing, and we’re going to the NCAA tournament.’ I really think that’s their belief.”

Patriot League championship

AMERICAN@LOYOLA MARYLAND

Saturday, noon

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Stream: ESPN+


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