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Lofty Loyola Lacrosse

Eric Lusby, in championship game against Maryland. He scored four goals, giving him an NCAA tournament-record of 17.

[Baltimore Sun photo by Gene Sweeney Jr. / May 28, 2012]

Three weeks ago I gave my annual overview of the NCAA men’s lacrosse tournament, providing my usual narrative about traditional lacrosse powers and schools on the rise. Alas, I missed the real story, Loyola. Despite being in the heart of lacrosse country, in Baltimore, it has generally been overshadowed by its next-door-neighbor, Johns Hopkins, and the local state university, Maryland. Perhaps no more.

I tried to give Loyola their due. I noted, for example, that they were one of the season’s surprises, and entered the tournament as the #1 seed, having lost only to Hopkins, in a game the NYT featured that morning with an article headlined, “A Lopsided Lacrosse Rivalry Receives a Jolt.” Historic power Hopkins entered the tournament with the #2 seed. No one would be surprised if they made the final. In contrast, seeding aside, Loyola would surely be a surprise if they made the final.

In my survey of traditional powers, I pointed out that until Duke’s win two years ago, the same seven schools — Syracuse, Cornell, Princeton, Hopkins, Maryland, Virginia, and UNC — dominated, winning all previous championships and frequently occupying the runner-up slot as well. I added that Duke has joined them in the past decade to form an elite eight, making seven semi-finals and three finals in the last eight years, with the one championship. (And they may well have been the best team in the country the year they didn’t make the semi-final, but their season was terminated prematurely.)

Knocking at the door behind Duke has been Notre Dame, losers to Duke in the championship game two years ago and routinely ranked highly. Yet another newcomer is Denver, with long-time Princeton coaching great Bill Tierney having resigned to move to Denver two years ago and bringing them to the semi-finals last year.

That was my rundown three weeks ago, the opening weekend of the tournament, during which the top five seeds — Loyola, Hopkins, Duke, Notre Dame, and Virginia — won home games to advance to the quarterfinals, joined by Denver (beating 8th seed UNC), Maryland (beating 7th seed Lehigh), and Colgate (beating 6th seed UMass).

Two weeks ago, form mostly held. In close games, Loyola beat Denver and Notre Dame beat Virginia to set up a semi-final meeting. In not-so-close games, Duke beat Colgate, but Maryland upset Hopkins to move into the other semi-final.

It is past time to point out that Loyola has its own distinguished lacrosse history. Though never having won a championship, it has had a pretty good run. Under coach Dave Cottle, it made the NCAA tournament every year from 1988 to 2001, losing to Syracuse in the 1990 final. (Syracuse would later be found to have violated eligibility rules and forced to vacate that title.) Cottle left Loyola for Maryland after the 2001 season, with Loyola then missing the tournament the next five years. But now they are back, under coach Charley Toomey, their goalie in that 1990 championship game.

Back and then some.

A week ago today, in a superb defensive battle, Loyola beat Notre Dame 7-5 to make the championship game, while Maryland stunned Duke 16-10. Two days later, in a defensive masterpiece, after falling behind 3-2 early in the second quarter, they didn’t allow Maryland to score for the final 40 minutes and 40 seconds, winning 9-3. Not only were they champions, but they left no doubt that they were the best team in the country.

It feels right, having them join the roster of lacrosse champions. One of these years, Notre Dame will be there. Maybe Denver. For now, order is maintained, the new champion being an old power from an old lacrosse center. It was fitting conclusion to as exciting a tournament as I can remember.

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