During his freshman year as a member of the Loyola Maryland men’s lacrosse team, Kyle LeBlanc’s blond hair grew to the point of being a bushy mess atop his 6-foot-2 frame. And it caught the attention of defensive coordinator Matt Dwan, who compared the young defenseman to a Hall of Fame great.
“Coach Dwan thought I looked like Larry Bird,” LeBlanc, now a senior, recalled. “There was this guy, Johnny McNamara, who was a fifth-year [attackman], and he was from Boston. So he loved that. So he started calling me ‘Larry,’ and everyone else hopped on.”
The nickname stuck. Fellow senior and midfielder Dan Wigley said everyone continues to refer to LeBlanc as “Larry” — even coach Charley Toomey, who referenced a “Larry” during an early-season interview. And LeBlanc speculated that few freshmen know his birth name.
“During one of our team lifts early in January when we got back, one of the seniors asked one of the freshmen what my real name was, and it took him a few minutes to figure it out,” LeBlanc said.
The anonymity doesn’t seem to bother LeBlanc, who has quietly emerged as a starter for the No. 18 Greyhounds (4-3, 2-1 Patriot League’s South Division), who visit No. 14 Navy (3-0, 1-0) on Saturday at 2 p.m. at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis. On a unit headlined by a pair of defensemen in junior Cam Wyers and senior Matt Hughes and graduate student long-stick midfielder Ryan McNulty, LeBlanc might be overlooked by outsiders, but not by coach Toomey.
“What we have found is, we do have two very talented perimeter cover guys, but really Kyle’s the guy that organizes the whole defense,” Toomey said, comparing LeBlanc to former two-year starter and current strength and conditioning coach David Manning. “Kyle’s the guy that is usually going to be on the inside, and we ask him to be a decision-maker for us and get us organized around him. … He’s just going to be somebody that makes everybody around him better by opening his mouth, by doing a lot of the little things the right way, by dragging his stick to the inside, by being willing to switch hands to play defense. He’s just really a glue guy. That’s what Kyle has brought to the table.”
LeBlanc’s road to Loyola could be described as unconventional. In his home state of New Jersey, LeBlanc attended High Technology High School in Lincroft, a magnet school that specializes in engineering, but played football, lacrosse and basketball (for one season) at Manasquan High School.
The 25-minute drive between the two schools meant that LeBlanc was frequently 10 minutes late for football practice, but he avoided too much flak thanks to a teammate.
“It actually worked out well for me because when I was a freshman, there was a kid who was a senior who also went to one of those schools, and he was one of the stars on the football team, and he was committed to play at Princeton,” he said. “So they didn’t really care — luckily.”
Despite developing into the Warriors’ top defender, LeBlanc was lightly recruited by several Division III programs and none on the Division I level. He was prepared to apply to Rutgers and Vermont and attempt to make either team as a walk-on.
But an uncle, Tom Donohue, was a member of Loyola’s men’s soccer team from 1987 to 1991 and played for the 1987 squad that advanced to the NCAA tournament quarterfinals. Donohue contacted one of his former teammates, Steve Nichols, who is the current soccer team’s head coach, to see if Toomey would meet with his nephew.
LeBlanc and his parents visited the campus in Baltimore in January 2017, and as they drove back to New Jersey, Toomey called and offered a spot on the team.
LeBlanc, who accepted immediately, said he and his uncle talk frequently about the latter’s intercession on the former’s behalf.
“We joke about it a lot,” LeBlanc said. “He asks how many of his pictures are on the wall there [at Ridley Athletic Complex]. … I think there’s probably just the one team picture on the wall.”
LeBlanc’s career with the Greyhounds got off to an inauspicious start, however, when he was struck in the jaw by a shot from midfielder P.J. Brown during a practice before a game against Lafayette on Feb. 24, 2018. An athletic trainer quickly recommended a visit to a dentist, and LeBlanc underwent surgery to insert 10 screws and wire shut his mouth for almost three weeks.
Limited to smoothies and milkshakes, LeBlanc estimated he lost between 30 and 40 pounds from his playing weight of 205 pounds. Even after the wires and screws were removed, his gums were so sore from a lack of usage that he could only slurp soft pasta and soup for days.
Wigley, who has known LeBlanc since they were freshmen and currently lives with him and fellow seniors Kevin Lindley and Sam Shafer in an off-campus house, said he never heard LeBlanc bemoan his situation.
“I’d say it was a bit frustrating, but like many things, he doesn’t seem to get flustered too easily,” Wigley said, recalling that he once had to advise his father to refrain from asking LeBlanc questions because he could not talk through his shuttered jaw. “ … He’s not really a complainer. He’ll get the job done however it needs to be done.”
LeBlanc returned as a sophomore to play in six games in 2019 and then appeared to make the leap to major contributor when he started all six games in 2020. That season, he held Johns Hopkins senior attackman Cole Williams to zero goals on six shots and zero assists and Rutgers senior attackman Adam Charalambides to zero goals on three shots and zero assists.
The 2020 campaign was cut short by the coronavirus, but his personal performance in those six starts chased away a doubt that had been gnawing at LeBlanc.
“They [Dwan and Toomey] had confidence in me, and it wasn’t just like, ‘You’re one of the only guys left on the team.’ It was more like, ‘We trust you enough to cover those guys, and we think you can play here,’” LeBlanc recalled. “That was the doubt that I always had being that it was the only school that made me an offer. Did I really belong here? But that kind of cemented it for me. It was confirmation.”
Wigley said LeBlanc is not the type to brag or even provide much on-field chatter, preferring to lead via his work ethic.
“He’s just gotten stronger and faster,” Wigley said. “I think he has some of the best footwork for a defenseman. I really don’t like to go up against him in practice. He doesn’t really beat you up like some other defensemen would, but it’s really hard to get past him. He’s just gotten better each year.”
LeBlanc already graduated in December with a bachelor’s in applied mathematics and is pursuing a master’s in data science. He intends to return next spring to use his final year of eligibility awarded to many athletes by the NCAA because of the coronavirus pandemic.
LeBlanc said he and his father Ken frequently discuss the journey he has taken to reach this stage of his career.
“It’s kind of what you always hoped for and wanted to achieve growing up,” he said. “To play at a program that’s ranked and to actually start and for it to actually happen the way that it did, you’ve got to take it all in.”
Toomey said LeBlanc is a classic example of the recruit who exceeded expectations.
“I can’t say I anticipated it, but I always say in recruiting that you can never measure the size of a young man’s heart, and that gets lost in recruiting,” he said. “You can see size, you can see speed, and you can see ability, but you can’t see how hard the kid wants it. That’s Kyle. He wanted it, and he continued to work, and when the opportunity presented itself, he was ready to step in and show what he could do, and that’s what happened.”
With the Greyhounds trailing No. 10 Lehigh (4-0, 3-0) in the Patriot League’s South Division, LeBlanc doesn’t get too misty-eyed about the hurdles he has overcome.
“I feel like that will hit me when I stop playing later on,” he said. “My parents love it, the whole story, but I’m kind of just focused on what we’re doing here right now.”