Loyola Greyhounds win first NCAA lacrosse title

One by one, Eric Lusby was embraced by his Loyola teammates as he walked to the middle of the field to accept the school’s first national championship trophy following a 9-3 win over Maryland at Gillette Stadium on a sun-soaked Monday afternoon in Foxborough, Mass.

It was the only time in the past four games Lusby was stopped, as the fifth-year senior from Severna Park wore a wide smile after turning a lacrosse field into his personal playground for the final time in a Loyola uniform.

And what a show it was – a postseason display of brilliance unmatched by any player who has ever picked up a lacrosse stick on the game’s grandest stage, the NCAA tournament.

Lusby scored 17 goals, including four against the Terrapins, in four tournament games, breaking the all-time record for goals in a single postseason held by Duke’s Zack Greer (2007) and Virginia’s Matt Ward (2006). Gary Gait, one of the game’s greatest stars, scored 15 in 1990.

“Words can’t describe how awesome this year has been,” Lusby said. “It’s been a journey. The whole year, from going unrated in the preseason, having that chip on your shoulder, knowing what we had in the locker room to prove to everybody that we are a top contender in the lacrosse world. It’s just been unreal.”

For the record, sophomore attacker Mike Sawyer scored what turned out to be the title-winning goal, but the Greyhounds (18-1) wouldn’t have come close to getting their paws on the championship trophy if it hadn’t been Lusby’s four goals.

“So many people have gotten to us where we are today and have been such great supporters of our program,” coach Charlie Toomey said as he tears welled in his eyes. “This is for them – our alumni and our university.”

Loyola’s victory finally gave the Greyhounds their first national title, but also bragging rights for a school that for years had been a mere sparring partner for local and national heavyweights Maryland, Johns Hopkins – and in most years, Navy.

Last year, the Greyhounds finished 8-5 and weren’t invited to the NCAA tournament. A year later, Loyola is the school with the smallest enrollment (3,863) to win a Division I national lacrosse title.

“We don’t bring up past history,” Toomey said. “This is our team.”

Loyola had always been considered a good program, but by no means a great one. And in this state, the Greyhounds were closer to the bottom of the totem pole than the top, a spot largely occupied by the Blue Jays or Terrapins since Loyola joined Division I in 1982.

Not anymore. Loyola is home to the top dog of college lacrosse, home to the 2012 national championship trophy that 60 other schools coveted.

For the Terrapins, Monday’s loss continued 37 years of heartbreak, as they lost their seventh straight championship game since winning it all in 1973 and 1975. The season can’t be considered a total loss – even if the Terrapins fell in the title game for the second straight year – because the Terrapins (12-6) weren’t even seeded at the tournament’s outset. Loyola was the top seed.

The game came down to a stretch of 42 minutes, 12 seconds bridging the second quarter and the final whistle, when Loyola held the Terrapins scoreless, turning a 3-2 deficit into a 9-3 win that will resonate throughout Charles Street and Cold Spring Lane for years.

Sophomore goalie Jack Runkel stymied the Terrapins, who scored 16 in their semifinal win over Duke on Saturday. Loyola played with machine-like precision defensively during that stretch, combining a physical style with a formation that limited the Terrapins to very few good looks – and Runkel did the rest to smother an offense that averaged nearly 12 goals a game over its past six.

“Fifteen minutes, fifteen minutes, fifteen minutes,” the Greyhounds chanted on the sideline before the start of the fourth quarter, knowing how much time separated them from glory.

The Terrapins missed their final 20 shots.

Loyola, playing in its first title game since losing to Syracuse in 1990, took control shortly after the Terrapins took a 3-2 lead on a goal by Kevin Cooper with 12:12 left in the half, a goal that turned out to be the Terrapins’ last of the season.

The Greyhounds, who have been fueled by their potent offense all season, reeled off goals by junior midfielder Pat Byrnes, Sawyer and junior midfielder Phil Dobson, whose tally with 3:57 left gave the Greyhounds a 5-3 lead at intermission.

The outburst, which came against a Maryland team that had shut down Johns Hopkins and Duke in its past two games, shouldn’t have come as a surprise, as it marked the 37th time this season the Greyhounds scored at least three straight unanswered goals.

It was imperative for Loyola to make the most of its chances because the Terrapins dominated the Greyhounds on faceoffs, as Maryland won eight of the first nine. But Loyola’s defense responded by forcing eight first-half turnovers, six more than the Terrapins forced in the first 30 minutes.

Note: Sunday’s game marked the fifth time two schools from the Free State played for the national title – and first since top-ranked Johns Hopkins knocked off No. 2 Maryland, 15-9, at Byrd Stadium in College Park. The Greyhounds’ lone defeat this season was a 10-9 setback in overtime to Johns Hopkins on April 28.