May 31, 2012

Lambrecht: Loyola Had Answer for Everything in 2012

by Gary Lambrecht |

Eric Lusby's postseason emergence was just one of many examples of Loyola's season-long display of championship mettle, writes Gary Lambrecht.
© Bryce Vickmark

NCAA Division I Men's Championship

* Top Dogs: Loyola Downs Maryland for National Title
* Lusby Breaks Tournament Scoring Record

* Terps Offense Dries Up in Another Title Game Loss
* Toomey, Tillman Finish Bittersweet Afternoon
* UnCensered: Hawkins, Ratliff Fueled Loyola's Run
* Live Blog Replay

Great teams have a way of figuring things out as the road gets harder. The Loyola Greyhounds were a study in that ability, which explains largely why Loyola is atop the Division I men's lacrosse world with its first NCAA championship.

Nobody reaches the summit without some exceptional talent. The Greyhounds had it all, from the dynamic scoring duo of Mike Sawyer and Eric Lusby, to their lunch-pail midfield units led by the underrated Davis Butts, to their numbingly good close defense, to the best defensive midfield group in the land anchored by LSM Scott Ratliff and SSM Josh Hawkins, to goalie Jack Runkel, their 6-feet-3 pillar in the cage.

But the Greyhounds finished their remarkable 18-1 journey as the last team standing, largely because they had the most adaptable roster in the NCAA tournament, despite having only a handful of seniors with meaningful playing time.

Watching Loyola plow through Notre Dame and Maryland at Gillette Stadium with discipline and calm efficiency that belied their youth and tournament inexperience had me wondering why knowledgeable observers kept stubbornly picking against Loyola. It had me baffled as to what USILA voters were seeing as they recognized the top-ranked, top-seeded Greyhounds with the backs of their hands.

Loyola had no first-team All-Americans, and only two players above the overpopulated honorable mention category – Sawyer (second team) and Ratliff (third). For a team that was ranked in the top five on offense and top 10 on defense all year, that level of ignorance/disrespect still mystifies.

The Greyhounds, who were one shot on pipe (in their 10-9, overtime loss to Johns Hopkins) shy of being the only undefeated team in the nation, simply had an answer for everything in 2012.

Mike Sawyer got cold in the postseason, as did every Loyola shooter besides Eric Lusby, who filled the void with a record-setting 17 goals in Loyola's four-victory march to the title. In its last three tournament victories, Greyhounds not named Lusby made just 12 of 78 shots (15.4 percent).

Senior midfielder J.P. Dalton struggled mightily facing off on Memorial Day weekend. The Greyhounds kept digging in and getting the ball back. Maryland stalled relentlessly to slow down Loyola. The Greyhounds still found ways to score quickly with minimal possession time, while taking a demoralizing, 5-3 halftime lead on the Terps.

In terms of their 19-game body of work, the Greyhounds won big early in the season while mostly playing at their preferred pace – fast and faster, with 40-plus shots on goal. But by midseason, opponents started taking the air out of the ball and testing Loyola's offensive patience and ability to play long stretches of defense. Loyola responded at the season's midpoint with tight wins over visiting Ohio State (8-7 score) and at Fairfield (8-6).

To me, Loyola advertised its championship mettle over a defining, 18-day stretch, with trips to Denver as bookends. On April 14, despite losing 21 of 25 face-offs, the Greyhounds forced enough turnovers and made enough shots to come from behind and beat the Pioneers going away, 12-9.

Two weeks later, with a 12-0 record in front of a sellout home crowd, Loyola started slowly, fell behind Hopkins 5-0, but never rattled. With a thrilling, fourth-quarter rush, Loyola forced overtime. Lusby, of all people, missed a wide-open, 12-yarder from dead center by hitting pipe. Hopkins never gave up the ball and handed the Greyhounds their only blemish in the closing seconds of OT.

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