Tim O'Shea still shudders at the memory of his first practice as
a member of the lacrosse team at Loyola of Maryland, in the fall
of 1994. He was all of 5'9", 155 pounds, a wide-eyed wisp of a
freshman who was immediately forced into a starting role as an
attackman. One of his first assignments: Take the ball
one-on-one against senior defenseman Matt Dwam, who would finish
the season as a first team All-America. "I just remember how
hard his checks were," O'Shea says, "I went from being the best
player on my high school team to getting pummeled. I'd play the
whole practice and the coach would take me out. Those practices
seemed to take days.
Those days are a distant memory for O'Shea, a fifth-year senior
(he redshirted in '96 to improve his strength) who leads the
Greyhounds in scoring this spring. Gone, too, are the days when
freshmen waltzed onto Loyola's practice field and, ready or not,
were anointed starters. The Greyhounds feature a talented
veteran cast, which is why they own the nation's No. 1 ranking
and a 7-0 record following last Saturday's 10-8 win over No. 4
Syracuse. Six of Loyola's 10 starters, and four of its top six
scorers, are seniors. "We're successful now because our seniors
took their lumps when they were freshmen," coach Dave Cottle
says. "As those kids have grown up, so have we."
That Cottle and his players are entertaining thoughts of winning
a national championship shows just how much this program has
grown up. Loyola is a private, coed, liberal arts college, with
3,200 students, that was founded by Jesuits in 1852. When Cottle
became coach in 1983, the university president who hired him,
Father Joseph Sellinger, had only one request: "Just beat Johns
Hopkins once before I die." (Hopkins, less than a mile down
North Charles Street from Loyola in Baltimore, had beaten the
Greyhounds 29 straight times before the series was suspended in
1969.) Cottle went 5-9 his first year and hasn't had a losing
season since. In 1988 Loyola made the first of its 11 straight
NCAA tournament appearances. The Greyhounds have reached two
Final Fours this decade, losing to Syracuse in the title game in
1990 and to Maryland in the semifinals last spring.
Sadly, Sellinger died about a month before Loyola defeated
Hopkins 17-15 during the '94 season. (Their series resumed in
'93.) He had, however, seen the Greyhounds upset their city
rivals in an out-of-season tournament in the fall of '89. No
doubt Sellinger was smiling in his skybox last month when Loyola
routed the Blue Jays 14-5 to take over the No. 1 ranking Hopkins
had held going into the game. "It was weird to watch them fold
like that," says Loyola senior attackman Gewas Schindler. "I
expected them to come at us with a third and fourth and fifth
run, but they didn't."
Winning the Charles Street Massacre, as the Loyola-Hopkins game
is called, is nice, but the road to the national championship
goes through Princeton, which has won the last three NCAA
titles. Tigers coach Bill Tierney will have only himself to
blame if Cottle wrests that trophy from his grasp. Three years
ago Cottle, who is renowned as an offensive impresario, started
picking Tierney's brain about defense. (The two are close
friends; they run a lacrosse camp together in the summer, and
Tierney is godfather to Cottle's oldest daughter, Taylor, 6.)
Cottle has implemented Tierney's system to great effect. The
Greyhounds gave up 8.53 goals per game last season, fifth-fewest
in the U.S., and were allowing only 6.28 per game this year
through Sunday despite having graduated Jamie Hanford, a
first-team All-America defenseman. The Loyola defense is
anchored by fifth-year senior goalie Jim Brown, a four-year
starter who at week's end had a noteworthy .649 save percentage.
"Their defensive scheme is much more under control," Tierney
says. "If you rely on one guy, you have no place to turn if
something lets down. But when everyone is on the same page, you
can replace the spokes in the wheel and nothing really changes."
Adds O'Shea, "It's harder to beat our defense during practice,
I'll tell you that."
Even when this senior class was taking its lumps--the Greyhounds
finished 7-6 three years ago--the players' talent was not in
question. The difference now is their maturity. "They understand
what games are about," Cottle says. That understanding was
forged partly by tragedy. In March 1997, Gerry Case, a freshman
attackman, died from a meningitis-related blood infection. Case
had entered the hospital on a Thursday morning after complaining
of flulike symptoms. On the subsequent Saturday the team
presented his parents with the game ball from its win that
afternoon over Brown. Earlier in the day it had appeared that
Case's condition was improving, but he took a turn for the worse
during the game and died a few hours later. His number 9 jersey
hangs in the Greyhounds' locker room.
"That kind of put us all in check," says midfielder Todd
Vizcarrondo, yet another fifth-year senior, who is tied for
first on the team in goals. "We look out for each other more
because of it. We realize we're a family, and we cherish every
moment we're out there."
Case's death had a profound effect on the Greyhounds' best
athlete, senior midfielder Mark Frye. When he arrived at Loyola
in the fall of '95, Frye was full of youthful hubris. He blew
off study halls and other academic obligations. In the beginning
of his sophomore year he had to work out separately along with
several teammates after hazing some freshman players. Frye was
one of Case's best friends on the team--they both grew up in the
Annapolis, Md., area, where they competed for rival high
schools--and he has become closer to the Case family since his
teammate's death. Last month Frye and two other players had
dinner with the Cases in honor of Gerry's 21st birthday.
Frye, a former schoolboy running back and defensive back who has
been invited to try out for the Canadian Football League after
he graduates, was a first-team All-America in lacrosse last
year. His learning curve reflects how much Loyola's perspective
has changed in recent years. "It took me awhile to understand
that nobody gives you anything," Frye says. "That's especially
true now because everybody's aiming for us. We can't have one
bad day. It used to be, when we played Syracuse or Hopkins, we'd
circle that game on our calendar. Now every week people are
circling their calendars for us."
Much of that winning attitude can be traced to Loyola's game in
April 1998 at Syracuse, which was then ranked No. 2. The
Greyhounds faced deficits of 5-0 and 10-5 in the first half
before cutting the Orangemen's lead to 10-9 at intermission. In
the locker room, associate coach Bill Dirrigl, a Syracuse
graduate, capped off a fiery philippic by punching his fist
through a greaseboard several inches thick. The players charged
onto the field and opened the third quarter with a 5-0 run that
propelled them to an 18-15 win, the school's first victory in
the Carrier Dome. "We called it the Punch Heard Round Syracuse,"
Cottle says with a chuckle. A breakthrough moment if ever there
If the Greyhounds can win their remaining five games, they will
earn the No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament for the second
straight year. Loyola's seniors don't have to win a national
championship to prove that they've grown up, but that doesn't
mean they don't have anything to prove. "We're sick of hearing
everybody say how we always get to the playoffs and then lose,"
O'Shea says. "Nobody wants to deal with that anymore. We want to
get out of here with rings on our fingers."
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS The Greyhounds veteran cast includes attackman Schindler, (above, right).
Father Sellinger had only one request. "Just beat Johns Hopkins
once before I die."