On Nov. 13, Loyola’s men’s soccer claimed its first-ever Patriot League championship with a 2-1 victory against American, but head coach Steve Nichols acknowledged this wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for a legendary coach who came before him.
In fact, if it weren’t for longtime Loyola head coach Bill Sento, Nichols would not be coaching Loyola at all. Sento was the head coach for the Greyhounds from 1980-1999 and is the program’s all-time winningest coach, compiling a record of 255-112-40. Sento was elected to Loyola’s Athletics Hall of Fame in 2014.
Nichols played for Sento from 1989-1991 and is now in his eighth year as the head coach at Loyola. The Greyhounds have won 54 games the past six seasons, but this is their first Patriot League title.
“The one guy that I didn’t hear from, that I can’t hear from, is Bill Sento because he’s not with us anymore. He passed away about a year and a half ago. That’s the reason I came back,” an emotional Nichols said on Glenn Clark Radio Nov. 15. “… Without him, I wouldn’t be here and a lot of guys wouldn’t be here. He’s special. I’ve heard from a million people that mean so much to me, but he’s the one guy that’s meant more to me in my life. It’s the only reason I’m back.”
The Greyhounds finished 3-2-1 during the 2021 COVID-shortened spring season, and with the help of more than 10 new players this fall, Loyola had a chance to have a great season. Prior to the season, the Greyhounds were picked to finish first in the Patriot League.
“Because of the COVID and the expansion of the scholarships for this one year, this was the deepest team we’ve ever had,” Nichols said.
It wasn’t easy, though. Nichols said the Greyhounds needed a change at the midpoint of the season when they were 4-5-2. After Nichols listened to players’ feedback and made changes to the depth chart, the Greyhounds shut out American (3-0) and Navy (2-0), which moved Loyola to the top of the Patriot League. Nichols explained that was the team’s turning point of the season.
However, the next game was against ACC power Wake Forest, and Nichols decided to rest several players against Wake. After being “manhandled” by Wake, 7-0, the Greyhounds won their final three regular-season games against Colgate, Army and Bucknell en route to a spot in the four-team Patriot League tournament.
“We went down to Wake that night and I had to leave a couple of guys home and I had to sit a couple of guys because we had to win [the following game against Colgate],” Nichols said. “… If we didn’t do what we did that day, we probably don’t win the championship. We don’t host American. We’re probably on the road somewhere.”
The Greyhounds faced Army again in the semifinals of the Patriot League tournament. The game ended in a tie, but Loyola advanced because it won in penalty kicks. The Greyhounds faced American in the Patriot League championship game. The game was tied at one late in regulation, but the Eagles committed a costly penalty that gave Patriot League Midfielder of the Year Justin Ingram a free kick. The 5-foot-8, 153-pound midfielder scored to put the Greyhounds up, 2-1.
Ingram has flourished on penalty, free and corner kicks this season. He acknowledged that practice is crucial in building confidence with penalty kicks in particular.
“I think confidence comes from just work and just putting in constant hours of preparation and spending the extra time out on the field,” Ingram said on GCR Nov. 11. “For me, it’s just go up there and pick your spot, pick where you want to go. … Pick your spot and just go with it and trust that the work you put in is enough.”
After an incredible save in the closing seconds of the game by graduate goalkeeper Chase Vosvick, the Greyhounds beat American and claimed their first-ever Patriot League championship.
Loyola is now 10-6-3 on the season and automatically qualified for the NCAA Tournament with the league championship. The Greyhounds will face a tough North Carolina squad that bowed out of the ACC tournament after a 2-1 quarterfinal loss to Clemson. The Greyhounds and Tar Heels will face off in Chapel Hill, N.C., on Nov. 18.
Nichols believes his team can make a successful run in the NCAA Tournament and credits his players as a driving force in the team’s success.
“This group is special,” Nichols said. “… This team has so much character. We’re still pretty talented but the character piece, between the white lines, is so important when you’re trying to win soccer games. This group exemplifies it day in and day out.”
For more from Nichols, listen to the full interview here:
Photo Credit: Larry French