An improbable run ended in heartbreaking fashion for the Loyola Maryland men’s lacrosse program.
Senior attackman Joe Robertson’s wrap-around goal with 57.8 seconds left in overtime lifted No. 2 seed Duke to a 10-9 win Sunday afternoon, denying an upset bid by the Greyhounds in an NCAA tournament quarterfinal at Notre Dame’s Arlotta Stadium in South Bend, Indiana.
Robertson’s heroics — his third goal in overtime this season — propelled the Blue Devils (14-2) their third semifinal appearance in as many seasons. They will meet the winner of the second semifinal between No. 3 seed Maryland (13-0) and No. 6 seed Notre Dame (8-3) on Saturday at a time to be announced at Connecticut’s Rentschler Field in East Hartford.
The setback spoiled what had been a Cinderella-like burst for the Loyola (10-6), which had been seeking its first berth in the semifinals since 2016. That the team even reached this stage seemed distant after limping to a 5-5 record on April 17 on the heels of a 14-12 loss to Patriot League rival Navy.
“Just so proud of the effort that my guys continued to show from midway into the season when you’re 5-5 and just continuing to fight to get to this moment,” coach Charley Toomey said. “And then once they got onto the stage, they showed a lot people their hearts. We played hard, and we didn’t get the result that we wanted, but I think the guys left it out there, and I’m proud of them for that.”
But if the Greyhounds were supposed to be satisfied with falling just short in the quarterfinal round, they weren’t.
“I think if you look at where we were a month-and-a-half ago, a lot of people didn’t think we would be here,” sophomore attackman Evan James said. “So it’s awesome just to get an extra two weeks with these guys, with the seniors. So it’s gratifying in that way, but that just makes us hungrier.”
Said Toomey: “We think that the quarterfinal round should be a standard for this program, and obviously it’s looking pretty grim when you’re 5-5. But I just think that I’m not going to be happy with it because we were right here to go to a Final Four. We’ve been to the Final Four in 2016, and this senior class has taken us to three straight quarterfinal rounds — something that doesn’t happen often. But in my opinion, this should be the standard for our program. So no, I’m going to appreciate the effort that they gave us, but this was what was expected when we took the field in Week 1.”
On the cusp of being irrelevant, Loyola won four consecutive games, including an 11-9 upset of then-No. 5 Georgetown on April 29 and victories over the Midshipmen and Army West Point in the conference tournament. But on the eve of meeting Lehigh in the tournament’s title game May 9, the team learned of a member of their Tier 1 personnel testing positive for the coronavirus and promptly withdrew from the championship final. (The test was later identified as a false positive.)
The following night, the Greyounds awarded one of the last remaining at-large berths at the expense of programs such as the Black Knights and Villanova. Seven days later on May 16, the team upended No. 7 seed Denver, 14-13, on the strength of five goals and one assist from senior attackman Aidan Olmstead and a career-high 16 saves by senior goalkeeper Sam Shafer.
On Sunday, James sparked the offense with four goals and one assist, and Shafer outdid himself yet again with a personal-best 17 stops. But after both sides traded possessions in the extra session, Robertson took senior defenseman Kyle LeBlanc around the left post and, while falling to the turf, bounced his shot over Shafer and into the top right corner to set off an on-field celebration.
“I remember just catching it and seeing that they didn’t really have a slide presence coming from the inside, and I knew I could beat the defender coming around the corner,” said Robertson, who finished with three goals and one assist and scored the overtime game-winner in a 14-13 victory over Notre Dame in an NCAA tournament quarterfinal May 18, 2019. “I turned the corner, and I was just thinking, ‘Get in front of the cage and try to wrap it around.’ Just lucky it went in.”
Said Shafer: “He dove across the crease. I thought he was going to go low, but he went high.”
Besides James, the offense got three assists from Olmstead, two goals from senior attackman Kevin Lindley and one goal and one assist from freshman midfielder Seth Higgins (St. Paul’s).
But the Greyhounds defense struggled against the Blue Devils’ starting attack. Aside from Robertson, freshman Brennan O’Neill matched James for game-high honors with four goals and one assists of his own, and graduate student Michael Sowers added one goal and three assists. Freshman faceoff specialist Jake Naso won 14 of 22 draws and scooped up a game-best nine ground balls.
Loyola went on a 4-1 run to erase a 7-5 deficit in the fourth quarter and assume a 9-8 lead on a Lindley goal with 2:04 remaining. But after junior defenseman Cam Wyers was flagged for an unnecessary roughness penalty to prevent Sowers from scoring on an uncontested breakaway with 1:38 left, Sowers found O’Neill for his second extra-man goal of the game that knotted the score at 9 with 1:09 remaining.
Olmstead and Lindley reportedly plan to return and use their final year of eligibility next spring, and they could be joined by other seniors. That is a comforting thought, but Toomey said Sunday’s loss should resonate with every returning player.
“We need to rely on these moments and hold onto the feeling we have right now as it takes us into our first practice in the fall,” he said. “There’s enough to get back to this moment and maybe even move forward. But right now, we have to be a better practice team. We have to put ourselves in a position to quite honestly win the Patriot League and have home first-round games. That’s what it’s about, and that should be the standard. But I think the future is bright for this program.”