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 wouldn't 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 tide 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.