I’m not going to pretend as though I’m unbiased.
You might be aware that in addition to my roles here at PressBox, I’m also a freelance play-by-play voice with significant roles locally at both Stevenson and Loyola, including calling men’s lacrosse home games for the Greyhounds.
But my bias probably didn’t begin when I was hired by Loyola. Loyola lacrosse coach (and former superstar goalie) Charley Toomey has always been one of the most likable figures in local sports. But when his players traveled to Newtown, Conn., in January 2013 to lead a lacrosse clinic in hopes of doing anything at all to help a community heal in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting, I genuinely broke down at my desk because I was so moved. While Toomey gave all of the credit to his players for the thoughtful gesture, there was no doubt it was a reflection of having a special individual leading the program.
I was truly grateful for the opportunity to work with Charley Toomey and his program when it came along.
I’ve been steadily accused of being more and more of a cynic in recent years. I don’t care for that. I’m a pragmatist. Like so many others, age and life experience has impacted how much sheer, unbridled joy I can take from watching sports. That’s OK! In fact that’s quite healthy and I’m rather proud of it! There’s a big world! Sports play a role in society but shouldn’t be the center of our universe.
Still, sometimes it’s OK to allow sports to bring you a little bit of sheer, unbridled joy. And boy did they do that for me this weekend.
You’ve probably seen it. In the final second of the Greyhounds’ NCAA Tournament opener at Denver May 16, Loyola goalie Sam Shafer stopped a POINT-BLANK Alex Simmons shot to protect a spectacular 14-13 victory. The brilliance of the moment requires no additional context. Yet the context is somehow much more incredible.
As was mentioned by the ESPNU broadcast of the Denver win, Shafer was benched during the Greyhounds’ 12-7 loss to Army April 10. When the Hounds hosted Navy a week later, not only did he not start in cage on his own Senior Day, we had been told (on background for our broadcast) that Shafer might not even be the backup if something happened to starter Freeman Whitaker that day.
Two significant things happened that day. First, Loyola lost the game and fell to 5-5 on the season. They weren’t on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament, they were further away from it than I am from understanding whether I’ll need my mask when I run various errands. Second, Whitaker allowed 10 first-half goals and Toomey decided to turn back to Shafer in the second half. He played much better as the Hounds nearly pulled off a dramatic comeback win.
Since that time, Shafer has played well and the Hounds have won five in a row.
But it’s not just the previously benched goalie making a dramatic double entendre “save of the season” (did I mention he also made a tremendous save in the final seconds of a must-win game against Army nine days earlier?) that made the Hounds’ win so emotional. It was the team itself.
At 5-5 after their loss to the Midshipmen April 17, the Hounds’ hopes of making the NCAA Tournament appeared to be down to whether they could somehow win the Patriot League tournament. Their chances of doing that appeared slimmer than rapper Marshall Mathers.
But you should never, ever doubt a team coached by Charley Toomey. Twelve days after the Navy loss, the Greyhounds took down fellow national quarterfinalist Georgetown, spring boarding them back into the NCAA Tournament conversation. They avenged both their Navy and Army losses in the Patriot League Tournament and were suddenly just one win away from a Patriot League title and an automatic bid before a positive COVID test forced them out of the conference title game.
The hours leading up to the May 9 selection show were chaotic. The test (which appears to have been a false positive) led to contact tracing and concern about whether they’d even be selected was followed up by concern about whether they’d be able to play.
They got in. They were rewarded with a trip to face Bill Tierney and mighty Denver. They were dominated at the faceoff dot, losing 23 of 30 for the game. After they built a 9-4 halftime lead, momentum wildly shifted toward the Pioneers in the second half and the Greyhounds were forced to scramble to find ANY sort of way to hold on.
It was all guts. Well, guts and five Aidan Olmstead goals and one particularly spectacular save.
But it was an awful lot of guts. And another testament to an incredible head coach.
And more than anything, it was a reminder of why we love sports. It was such a joy to watch.
Photo Credit: Jack Dempsey