Few gave the Towson men's lacrosse team a chance against 2015 NCAA champion and No. 2 seed Denver in Sunday's first-round tournament game. In fact, ESPNU, which aired a preview of Sunday's contest, called the underdogs "Townson."
But the Tigers shook up the postseason and expectations with a 10-9 win over the Pioneers. They have extended their program-record single-season win total to 16 and will make their first appearance in the quarterfinals since 2003 against No. 7 seed Loyola Maryland (13-3) on Sunday at 2:30 p.m. at Ohio Stadium in Columbus.
Those associated with the program attribute the team's success to coach Shawn Nadelen, who at age 37 has guided Towson to three Colonial Athletic Association tournament championships in the past four years.
"He gets all of the credit for where we're at right now," athletic director Tim Leonard said. "He pushes [the administration] all the time — in a good way — and good coaches do that. They're supposed to. That's their job, and he's fighting for his program. We're following his lead."
Said senior goalkeeper Tyler White: "I'm excited with where the program is going to go in the future. I couldn't be more grateful for what he's done for me over the past five years."
Perhaps the only person unwilling to credit Nadelen is the coach himself.
"I'll take all the blame, and there's no doubt about that because it starts and stops with me," he said. "But for that success, the guys have to commit and if I were to ask guys to do stuff and preach why it's important and they don't do it, then we're not going to be successful. And the staff resonates that and the players resonate that."
When the university named Nadelen as Tony Seaman's successor after the 2011 season, he was already associate head coach and defensive coordinator, but he had no head coaching experience. Still, he wasted little time setting the tone for his tenure.
There was the infamous conditioning test in the fall of 2011 in which a reported 40 of 44 players failed a series of 75-yard sprints and shuttle runs in a designated window of time. Later that semester, players were ordered to show up at Johnny Unitas Stadium at 4:30 a.m. for a grueling workout because of a teammate's transgression. Even now, a player who shows up for practice with a different-colored pair of socks than his teammates puts the others at risk for punishment, such as burpees, stair climbs or log rolls.
The intent, Nadelen said, is to demonstrate the need for players and coaches to work in coordination toward common goals, which include winning CAA and NCAA titles.
"It's really about the commitment from the staff and players to understand that for us to be successful, we all need to be saying the same thing, we all need to do the same thing, we're all focused on the same thing, and everything needs to line up," he said. "You can't have distractions, and you can't have guys go off on their own way. It's really been fun to see the guys buy into that not only for themselves but also for the team."
Some players were unhappy with the change from Seaman to Nadelen, and a few stopped playing lacrosse. But redshirt senior midfielder Ben McCarty (South Carroll) said those who remained are better for it.
"I think it all comes back to the culture of being a team," McCarty, a Westminster resident, said. "Confidence comes from being such a close-knit team, being able to trust one another and buying into the program, and it comes down to the little things — being in the right line, having the right shoes on, looking the same way, acting the same way."
ESPN/Big Ten Network analyst Mark Dixon admired Nadelen's demeanor after senior defensemen Andrew Cordes and Mike Lowe drew penalties in Sunday's win at Denver.
"He wasn't scolding them or giving them the business," the former Johns Hopkins midfielder said. "He was coaching them, teaching them and showing [them] the proper way to play defense in that situation."
Johns Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala, who coached Nadelen in 2001, said the Tigers have embodied Nadelen's qualities.
"They are mentally tough, they are rock solid, and that's what Shawn is," Pietramala said. "Look, I'm a competitor of his, and we're right down the road from each other, but he's still a Hopkins guy, and I look at him and I'm happy for him."
As strict as Nadelen can be, he's fiercely protective of his players. There have been a few times when his assistants and players have had to restrain Nadelen from entering the field after a late hit.
"He said — and I'll never forget this — 'I'll always do anything for you guys,'" former midfielder Justin Mabus said. "That just made us feel so good, to have a coach willing to get thrown out of a game or whatever it takes."
With a win Sunday, the Tigers would advance to their first national semifinal since 2001. And Nadelen could become a target for several high-profile Division I programs with head coaching vacancies, including Virginia and Princeton.
But whatever unfolds, Nadelen insists that any future success will be a shared endeavor.
"I want it to be known that we are shoulder-to-shoulder," he said. "I'm not out in the front and I'm definitely not in the back. I'm going to be with them ready to go. I know that from my experience with teams in the past, teams that played for each other, those are strong teams, and that's what we try to build here every year."