The Loyola Maryland men’s lacrosse program has gone from a COVID-19 case study to one of the last eight teams standing in the NCAA Division I tournament.
Just seven days removed from being forced to bow out of the Patriot League tournament’s title game after a member of its Tier 1 personnel tested positive for the coronavirus, the Greyhounds took advantage of a surprise at-large berth in the field of 16 to stun No. 7 seed Denver, 14-13, on Sunday night in a first-round game at Peter Barton Lacrosse Stadium in Denver.
Advancing to its third consecutive quarterfinal and fourth in the past five years, Loyola (10-5) will meet No. 2 seed Duke on Sunday at 12 p.m. at Arlotta Stadium in South Bend, Indiana. The Blue Devils (13-2) defeated High Point, 16-10, earlier on Sunday. The team’s journey was not lost on senior attackman Aidan Olmstead and coach Charley Toomey.
“That was a tough 24, 48 hours for the guys,” Olmstead said of the previous weekend. “But as we’ve said before, our body of work over the last three or four weeks and what we put out on the field today proves that we are where we’re meant to be. We’re just going to keep being where our feet are together as a program and enjoy each other’s company and just get ready for the last game.”
Said Toomey during an interview with ESPN: “It’s just been an emotional roller coaster, and not just for me. It’s the whole program. They’re playing their best lacrosse, and they just wanted to stay together as a group. You’ve got fifth-year seniors and super seniors, and this is about them. To look at them last Saturday night and just say, ‘We’re not playing tomorrow in the biggest game at that point of the year,’ it just gutted me. To have that opportunity, [offensive coordinator] Coach [Marc] Van [Arsdale] said it best in our pregame. We played two hours to earn 168 more, and that’s exactly what we just did.”
In a matchup between the 2012 national champion in the Greyhounds and the 2015 titlist in the Pioneers, Loyola provided the second upset of the eight first-round games thanks to a career-high 16 saves from senior goalkeeper Sam Shafer. With Denver pressing for a goal to send the game into overtime, Shafer used his entire 6-foot-3, 235-pound frame to use his right shoulder to stone junior midfielder Alex Simmons from the doorstep in the final seconds of regulation.
Shafer, who was pulled after less than 10 minutes of play in an eventual 12-7 loss to Army West Point on April 10 at Ridley Athletic Complex in Baltimore and benched in favor of junior Freeman Whitaker for a game against Navy seven days later, was modest about his performance.
“I just did my part tonight,” he said. “Luckily, I made a couple more saves than I have in previous games. I think the past couple of weeks, I’m really trying to step up and be a leader on the defense, not just the starting goalie. I’m trying to make everyone better around me and our defense better as a whole. I think that plays a part in it.”
Toomey, a former All-American goalie himself, said he “never stopped loving” Shafer.
“Just sometimes you’ve got to find your way again, and I think everything he’s doing right now is right,” Toomey said. “I think he’s seeing the ball, he’s sitting on it, he’s waiting. He’s just playing with such confidence and when he plays with confidence, you see it in our short sticks, you see it in our defense, and they’re willing to take some risks, and I thought some of those risks really paid off tonight.”
Offensively, Loyola relied on the strength of five goals from Olmstead, two goals and one assist each from sophomore attackman Evan James and freshman midfielder Seth Higgins (St. Paul’s), and one goal and two assists each from graduate student midfielder Peter Swindell and sophomore midfielder Adam Poitras.
After trailing 2-1 late in the first quarter, the Greyhounds scored five unanswered goals over a 7:07 span. Denver rallied to close the gap to a single goal on three occasions in the second half, but could not get over the hump to tie the score or take the lead.
“We just got it done,” Toomey said. “We said it wasn’t going to be the prettiest lacrosse, but we just had to keep fighting, and that’s exactly what they did. To stop those runs was huge.”
Graduate student attackman Jackson Morrill (McDonogh) paced the Pioneers (12-5) with three goals and one assist, senior midfielder Jack Hannah chipped in three goals, and Simmons has three assists. Denver, which did not qualify for the 2019 tournament, will miss out on back-to-back quarterfinals for the first time since Bill Tierney became head coach prior to the 2010 season.
LOYOLA MARYLAND VS. NO. 2 DUKE
South Bend, Indiana
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