The Underdog Days Are Over

How Loyola’s lacrosse team surprised everyone by winning the national championship.

On the final day of 2011’s fall practice for Loyola University Maryland’s men’s lacrosse team, the players figured the coaches might go easy on them. It was a chilly Friday in November, right before break, and Inside Lacrosse’s pre-season polls had just come out. Loyola—consistently ranked in the Top 10—was slotted at a measly number 21.

“I thought it was maybe going to be an easier practice,” says senior long-stick midfielder Scott Ratliff. “But, it turned into the hardest conditioning day of the fall.”

Loyola’s assistant coaches had devised a list of 21 types of sprints—long, short, different directions, you name it—a pattern for each team ranked above them. Before each run, the coaches would yell a team name: “Hopkins!” “UVA!” “Syracuse!”

As the teams’ names were rattled off, thoughts swirled through the mind of each player grinding his way up and down the field of the Ridley Athletic Complex.

“You’re thinking about the players on the teams you know from high school, what will happen when we play,” says junior attackman Justin Ward. “It was such a mental grind.”

Coach Charley Toomey, who was in meetings that day, said the 21 sprints were all in the hands of his assistant coaches. But maybe it was a good strategic move.

“That became a calling card for us,” Toomey says. “We challenged our guys. We’re not used to being on the outside looking in.”

Loyola didn’t remain on the outside for long. Their Cinderella season would have them going 18-1, beating almost all of those 21 teams, and being crowned the first Division I NCAA champions in university history.

But, how did they do it? How did a team with only a handful of seniors, who didn’t even qualify for the tournament in 2011, go on to win the coveted trophy? With a revolutionary coaching strategy, the right athletes at the right time, and that motivating chip on their shoulder, Loyola found the keys to success.

“Those rankings were in the back of our head all season long,” Ratliff says. “We felt like we never got the respect we deserved until it was all over.”

To start with, this squad couldn’t have asked for a more ideal head coach than Toomey, who has been leading the team since 2006. Toomey also played for Loyola as a goalkeeper.

“I started playing when I was 8, when most people’s fathers had never heard of the sport,” says Toomey, now 45. “But I fell in love with the ability to run around and beat on someone else. It was fun.”

Toomey was recruited from The Boys’ Latin School of Maryland late in his senior year by Loyola coach Dave Cottle. That team grew exponentially, and in Toomey’s senior year, they reached the NCAA championship game (the last time prior to 2012), but fell to Syracuse.

“Even back in those days, we were a program going against these huge schools,” says Brian Kroneberger, a wealth manager and former midfielder on Toomey’s team. “For the most part, the program has always been an underdog.”

After he was done playing, Toomey never strayed far from the idea of coaching, volunteering for Loyola and, eventually, becoming head coach.

“I saw the coaching side not just for the X’s and O’s, but also from a recruiting and scouting standpoint,” Toomey says. “Plus, I just love that locker-room environment. That’s where kids meet their best man and your best friends.”

However, since Toomey took the helm in 2006, Loyola hadn’t seen much success. Starting with last season, he decided to make some changes.

“Every player realizes Toomey’s the guy he wants to play for,” says ESPN lacrosse analyst Paul Carcaterra. “But in 2012, he changed the team’s identity. He wanted them to play fast. When I talked to him, he would scratch his head and say, ‘Are we really playing this fast?’ Because it’s a risk. But he said the pros will outweigh the cons. A fantastic observation.”

Indeed, in the off-season, Toomey and his coaching staff attended conventions and watched Division III games, focusing on tempo and transition offense (when the midfield moves the ball quickly, giving the offense opportunities to take shots).

“It was really different from day one,” Ratliff says. “Two years ago, we were young and played a slowed down pace. But we started running transition drills, and it was a blast. It was much less structured, and they just let us play. It brought a new life and energy to the team.”

Another huge reason for optimism was Eric Lusby, a fifth-year attackman coming off a torn ACL injury, who was practicing without a knee brace and felt pretty much back to normal.

“Coach changed our offensive philosophy,” says Lusby, who now plays professionally for the Charlotte Hounds. “He wanted 40 shots a game, almost double the typical amount, which is what [attackman Mike] Sawyer and I like to hear.”

The team also had face-off master senior J.P. Dalton, the long-stick skills of Ratliff, disciplined defenseman Dylan Grimm, the cerebral studier Ward, athletic midfielder Davis Butts, and shooters Sawyer and Lusby, to name a few.

“We had all of the players we needed in each role,” Butts says. “Eric came back from an injury, we had two transfers, and other players matured. All of the right pieces just kind of came together.”

Loyola had perennially played in the shadows of local titans The Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland, so it took viewers a while to notice the team’s under-the-radar talent.

“They were more than underdogs,” says alumna Kroneberger. “They weren’t even being talked about.”

But the Greyhound players were much more aware of their potential—even as early as fall ball in October.

“We scrimmaged Siena, which is a very good D-I team,” says Ward. “We had 21 shots in the first quarter.” That’s a lot. “We peppered the cage. It seemed so easy. That was my first clue, ‘Wow we could be pretty good.’”

Loyola continued to beat up on higher ranked teams like Maryland and Harvard, but still, it wasn’t until the fifth game of the season that heads were turned.

“I started to think they were for real when they beat Duke,” says analyst Carcaterra. “I spoke to Duke’s coaches after the game and they said it wasn’t a fluke.”

“Loyola took care of business. You saw the energy of a team that’s never really been there before.”

Loyola cruised through the season, going undefeated for 12 games, until they faced their final regular-season game against Hopkins, aka “The Battle of Charles Street.” Though Loyola fell in overtime, players admitted the team felt different, even in defeat.

“We only lost by one goal,” says midfielder Butts. “But we were going to the tournament. We were excited because we knew we were going to get a bid either way.”

Reflecting on the regular season, Coach Toomey said the team philosophy was to take it one day at a time.

“We didn’t talk specifically about Hopkins or playing Hobart or playing Denver a third time,” he says. “For us, it was always about the next match-up, the next ground ball.”

By the time May rolled around, Loyola had earned a regular season record of 12-1 and entered the NCAA tournament.

“The beauty of this sport is, when you get to play some of the best teams in the nation, you’re going to move up the polls fast,” says Carcaterra. “Loyola took care of business, and you saw the energy and excitement of a team that’s never really been there before.”

Championship weekend took place in Foxborough, MA, at Gillette Stadium (a good luck charm for local teams these days). The four remaining teams were Duke, Maryland, Notre Dame, and Loyola. Most sports analysts believed that it would be Notre Dame and Duke in the final.

But, on May 26, Loyola surprised everyone, yet again, beating Notre Dame 7-5.

“You’d think at that point, we couldn’t play the disrespect card, but everyone except one writer picked Notre Dame to beat us,” Ratliff says. “I remember walking back to the locker room seeing some Inside Lacrosse writers. I said, ‘Keep picking against us boys!’”

So, now it was time for the big show: Maryland versus Loyola in the finals. The last time the Greyhounds were here was when Coach Toomey was a 22-year-old goalie.

“I felt awful nervous,” Toomey admits. “I saw Maryland play Duke two days before, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for them. Their head coach is one of my closest friends. The conversation we had in the locker room was, ‘We’re number one right now and Maryland has to come to us.’”

By now, Loyola’s strategy was no secret and Maryland knew that, in order to win, they had to slow the Greyhounds down and create a more traditional six-on-six game.

“Loyola played great defense and goal-tending,” Carcaterra says. “The defensive midfielders allowed the offense to play to their strengths. It was a double whammy. Loyola showed they could win two ways, fast or slow. They were able to adapt.”

The Greyhounds put nine shots in the net, including four from Lusby, whose 17 goals were the most in a single NCAA tournament, and who was named the most outstanding player of the tournament.

As the final whistle blew, Greyhound players flooded the field, heaving their pads, helmets, and sticks into the air like it was a commencement ceremony.

“I didn’t know what to do,” Coach Toomey says. “I never saw a head coach run and jump onto the pile, so didn’t think I could do that. But our trainer’s son jumped into my arms, and that’s when I released my first smile.”

The stands at Gillette were packed with forest green that day, proving that even a tiny Jesuit university, an eighth of the size of Maryland, can be just as loud.

“People always think of Hopkins or Syracuse,” Lusby says. “A team like Loyola winning, you dream about it, but you never think it can happen.”

So the question becomes, what now? Many coaches, like Alabama football coach Nick Saban, argue that being a champion may be even more challenging than an underestimated team.

“It’s much more difficult to win the second one,” says Toomey. “There can be complacency in the locker room, and now you have a target on our back.”

Besides losing key players like Lusby and Dalton, Loyola’s offensive coordinator Dan Chemotti was named the head coach at the University of Richmond. On the other hand, with their large junior class last season, the playing philosophy will remain the same.

“They almost virtually have their same team back,” Carcaterra says. “I think Coach Toomey is going to handle it really well. The message now can be, ‘People didn’t think you could do it then, and no one thinks you can now.’ Lots of good fuel.”

Rankings have placed Loyola at No. 1, and most of those skeptical sports reporters now see them as a certain final four team. In other words, Loyola has some swagger now.

In fact, when the players were celebrating back at Ridley after the championship win, they remembered those painful sprints back in the fall and, this time, only ran one. But Coach Toomey isn’t letting it go to their heads.

“We really need to embrace the now,” he says. “This is a brand new trophy, and we’re chasing a new dream.”