At Loyola University Maryland, there is no big-time football program. The men’s basketball team competes in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
These are assets in Charley Toomey’s favor.
Toomey is the head coach of the Loyola men’s lacrosse team. It is the No. 1 team in the country. On Saturday, the Greyhounds will square off against Notre Dame in the NCAA semifinals at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough. It will mark Loyola’s first semifinals appearance since 1998.
At Loyola, lacrosse trumps all sports.
“I don’t think many schools care about lacrosse as much as Loyola,” said Toomey. “We don’t play football. Our stadium will rival any stadium in the country. We’re the beneficiary of the Ridley Athletic Complex. That is our pitch. Come to Baltimore and play high-level lacrosse.”
It was the proposal Davis Butts heard while he was starring at Walpole High. Between 2006-09, Butts established himself as one of the school’s finest lacrosse players in history. Butts was a three-time All-Bay State League player. Butts was an All-American as a junior in 2008. As a senior, Butts scored 60 goals and 116 points in 2009 to set Walpole’s single-season record.
Butts considered UMass. The appeal of playing college lacrosse in Baltimore, the sport’s epicenter, was too magnetic for Butts to turn down. Toomey had reeled him in.
“Being down in the Maryland atmosphere and the lacrosse atmosphere is much different than at UMass,” said Butts, a junior midfielder. “This year, it’s been a good year. We’ve got large crowds. We play big schools. If you look at Massachusetts, lacrosse is a big sport. But at most high schools, you look at football. Down here, football is still a big sport. But even in high school, there’s large crowds for lacrosse. The youth programs are extremely good. There are rivalries all over Maryland – the [Johns] Hopkins rivalry. There’s 10,000 people at a game. It’s a different experience than up in Massachusetts.”
Loyola’s history and its location are two of the primary points that Toomey has had to sell amid the program’s ascent to the sport’s elite clubs. Toomey is an ex-Greyhound. Toomey was a Loyola goalie from 1987-90, when he compiled a 25-5 all-time record. Toomey is the last Loyola goalie to start an NCAA title game. In 1990, Toomey was in goal for Loyola’s 21-9 loss to Syracuse. Toomey played for former coach Dave Cottle, who was at the Loyola helm for 19 seasons.
Toomey returned to his alma mater in 2006, replacing Bill Dirrigl. In 2005, Dirrigl’s last season, the Greyhounds went 5-8. Loyola never qualified for the NCAA Tournament while Dirrigl was the coach.
Toomey’s mission was to return the Greyhounds to their previously lofty status in the lacrosse world. Loyola had appeared in the NCAA Tournament every year from 1988 to 2001. On the recruiting front, Toomey would be competing directly against traditional powers such as Johns Hopkins and Maryland. Loyola also had to contend with the other regional powerhouses: Duke, North Carolina, Virginia. It was not an easy task.
In improving Loyola’s recruiting reach, Toomey credits assistants Matt Dwan and Steve Vaikness, also ex-Greyhounds.
“I felt strongly about having Loyola graduates as part of the staff,” Toomey said. “They understand our program from top to bottom as student-athletes here.”
This season, Loyola’s stars are Mike Sawyer and Eric Lusby. Sawyer is one of five finalists for the Tewaaraton Award, given annually to college lacrosse’s best player. Through 17 games, Sawyer has 51 goals and eight assists for 59 points.
Lusby has scored even more than Sawyer. Lusby has recorded 45 goals and 16 assists for 61 points in 17 games. They are the high-end players that Toomey has been seeking since his return to Loyola.
“When those guys get the ball in certain situations, there’s very little you can do besides hoping for the goalie to make a play,” said Notre Dame coach Kevin Corrigan of Sawyer and Lusby. “One of the keys to defending them is keeping them out of transition. Whether it’s full field with the defensive middies and the poles, or half field from scramble situations like a ground ball or broken clear. It starts with that stuff. It’s keeping a little closer eye on them in six-on-six situations.”
Butts isn’t far behind Sawyer and Lusby. The junior has scored 19 goals and 13 assists for 32 points, fourth-most on the Loyola roster.
“Really blessed with speed,” Toomey said. “The thing about Davis is that to cover his speed, he always draws a long pole. He’s a young man you’re not going to bury on the crease because he’s drawn a long pole. We allow him to dodge and still initiate. Watching his maturity over the last couple years, he was thrust into the mix as a freshman. It’s been baptism by fire. Watching the game slow down for Davis has been a real treat.”
Loyola qualified for the semifinals with a 10-9 win over Denver last Saturday. With a win over the Fighting Irish, the Greyhounds would advance to the title game against Duke or Maryland. Loyola is 13-6 all-time against Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish have won the last four showdowns.
The Greyhounds enter the semifinals as the top-ranked club among the four. They are 16-1, their only blemish a 10-9 overtime loss to Johns Hopkins on April 28. They are the favorites to claim their first NCAA crown.
“I felt like this was coming,” Toomey said of this season’s success. “For every team to have a special year, it takes team chemistry. I feel very good about bringing kids to Loyola. It may not be an ACC school or have the allure of a huge basketball program or football program. The point is the lacrosse program. You’re coming to a place that cares about your sport.”Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto.