If the Loyola men’s lacrosse team’s seniors aren’t graduating with the rest of their class, that’s a good thing.
In this case, it means the Greyhounds will be preparing for their NCAA Tournament quarterfinal matchup against Duke while their classmates graduate. The game will take place in South Bend, Ind., on May 23, but the Hounds will be traveling a day earlier when Loyola’s graduation ceremony at M&T Bank Stadium is taking place.
Thus, Loyola’s seniors were honored May 18 before they departed for South Bend — the reward for a heart-stopping, 14-13 victory against Denver in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
“This week is always a unique week after a win like that because our kids will have a special graduation because Loyola’s graduation is on Saturday and obviously we’ll be traveling,” Loyola head coach Charley Toomey said on Glenn Clark Radio May 18. “It’s almost like a rite of passage for men’s lacrosse to have their own ceremony with their families, so we’re excited about that this week.”
The early graduation ceremony was made possible in large part by the performance of those very same seniors who graduated a few days early. Senior attackmen Aidan Olmstead and Kevin Lindley and graduate midfielder Peter Swindell combined for eight goals, while senior goalkeeper Sam Shafer made 16 saves, including the dramatic game-saver in the waning seconds of regulation that will live in Loyola lore for years to come:
Loyola has nine seniors and five fifth-year seniors. The seniors who have been at Loyola the past four years will be participating in the NCAA Tournament’s quarterfinal round a third straight time. Though there was no tournament last year, the Greyhounds earned quarterfinal appearances in 2018 and 2019.
Toomey credited his seniors with keeping the team headed in the right direction throughout the season. The Greyhounds were 5-5 at one point and looked to have a narrow path to the NCAA Tournament, but they won four straight to close out the regular season, including two huge victories against Georgetown and Navy.
Though a positive COVID-19 test within the program robbed Loyola of a chance at a Patriot League title, the Greyhounds did enough down the stretch to secure an at-large bid.
“You’ve got guys who have been here, who understand the tradition, understand the expectations,” Toomey said. “They are doing a great job in our locker room of trying to keep things together and motivating and believing in the process. I think that’s the biggest thing. It’s a strange year for all of us with COVID and what you can and can’t do on and off the field, but I really believe that our seniors have driven this bus and really kept this team together and motivated.”
No one embodies that spirit more than Shafer, who was briefly benched earlier this year. Toomey opted to start junior Freeman Whitaker in goal against Navy April 17 to try to spark Loyola’s defense in what was quickly becoming an up-and-down year for the Greyhounds. After Navy scored 10 first-half goals, Toomey went back to Shafer in the second half — and Shafer hasn’t left the net since.
Toomey, who was a goalkeeper at Loyola from 1987-1990, relayed a conversation he had with Shafer when both were on their way to the postgame news conference after the Denver victory.
“We were just chatting and joking around. I said, ‘Man, career day. Career day for you.’ We needed every one of them, obviously,” Toomey said. “And he goes, ‘Coach, probably almost like one of your career days.’ I said, ‘Well, you’ve got a couple more saves to hit my career number.’ He said, ‘I want to see that film.’
“We were joking around, but what he has done has brought a lot of energy to our sideline, to our defense. It allows those guys to go out and play hard and know that if they make a mistake, they’ve got a really good chance of being bailed out and that’s exactly what happened [May 16], no bigger than that 16th save.”
Loyola will undoubtedly need another big game from Shafer against Duke May 23. The Blue Devils (13-2 overall, 4-2 in the ACC) are the No. 2 overall seed in the tournament and beat High Point, 16-10, in the first round. They’re led by graduate attackman Michael Sowers (34 goals, 41 assists), senior attackman Joe Robertson (33, 17) and freshman attackman Brennan O’Neill (40, 9), among others.
Duke beat Loyola, 13-10, last March before the season was shut down due to COVID-19.
“We have such tremendous respect for that program. Obviously I know [Duke head coach John Danowski] really well. We’re just excited about this opportunity to keep playing together,” Toomey said. “We don’t have to look far. That’s one of the teams that we played in 2020. We can open up the file and they’re going to open up the file. A lot of the faces haven’t changed. It’s going to be a great game.”
For more from Toomey, listen to the full interview here:
Photo Credit: Jack Dempsey