FOXBOROUGH - When Loyola’s Eric Lusby chose to sit out last season in the hopes that his injured knee would show some signs of improvement when he returned, he was essentially trading that season for the game he’s about to play Monday.
The decision was simple for Lusby, if only because his anterior cruciate ligament made it for him.
Two years ago, when he was a midfielder for Loyola and not an attacker, he shredded the ligament in his right knee in an NCAA Tournament first-round game against Cornell.
He came back the next season, played two games, but nothing about the knee felt right.
The choices were to either grind out his senior season on a knee that was less that healthy or red-shirt. He sat.
The Greyhounds went 8-5, missed out on the NCAA Tournament, and, for Lusby, the most painful part wasn’t rehabbing, it was watching.
“Being a student-athlete, he’ll be the first one to tell you it’s tough when you can’t help your teammates,’’ Loyola coach Charley Toomey said. “There were opportunities last year where we probably needed Eric out there. But I don’t think Eric would change a minute of his decision to go back and rehab and be shut down.’’
After watching him take the bolts off the defensive machine that is Notre Dame Saturday in the NCAA semifinals at Gillette Stadium, the choice made perfect sense.
A week after notching five goals in a win over Denver, matching a career high, he rattled off another five that knocked the fight out of the Irish in a 7-5 win. The win sent the Greyhounds (17-1) into Monday’s title game against unseeded Maryland, which upset Duke, 16-10, in the other semifinal.
The Greyhounds, the tournament’s top seed despite being unranked at the start of the season, go on to their first national championship game since 1990, thanks in no small part to Lusby, who scored 50 goals this season and 13 in three tournament games.
Lusby also assisted on Walpole native Davis Butts’s goal with 12:59 left in the second half. It was his fifth assist of the tournament.
“We wouldn’t be where we are today without him,’’ midfielder Scott Ratliff said. “It’s just head and shoulders better with him out on the field.’’
Waiting for Loyola will be the in-state rival Terrapins, who return to the national title game after falling to Virginia in the championship game last season.
Duke’s firepower was supposed to be the concern, but Maryland’s offense was relentless.
Drew Snider scored a career-high four goals, including three straight, starting with one with 13.4 seconds left in the first half that set the tone for the rest of the game.
The Blue Devils (15-5) looked like shells of themselves for nearly three quarters. Even when they started to shake out of it, with Justin Turri (two goals) and Josh Offit (one) responding to Snider’s third-quarter onslaught, Maryland refused to let up.
Rivals in the Atlantic Coast Conference, this was the sixth time they have played each other the past two seasons, the third time this year. Maryland (12-5) won the regular-season meeting in March, Duke edged the Terps in the ACC tournament a month later, and this was the high-stakes rubber match.
Before the game, sophomore goalie Niko Amato made it a point to remind the Terps that they weren’t supposed to have gotten to Foxborough.
“I just wanted to remind these guys that we know we’re talented,’’ said Amato, who finished with 10 saves. “But I don’t want anyone to forget we’re an unseeded team and we definitely have to play with a chip on our shoulder.’’
It’s the second straight trip to the title game for coach John Tillman, who left Harvard to coach the Terps.
For a team with a proud tradition, Loyola hadn’t been to the Final Four since 1998.
Knowing that Notre Dame (13-3) boasted the stingiest defense in the country, Loyola found a way to play the Irish’s game and win, holding them scoreless for stretches of 26:21 in the first half and 24:46 in the second.
“They’re a really patient offense, the don’t force anything,’’ Ratliff said. “So it’s all about matching their patience.’’
Goalkeeper Jack Runkel came up with a career-high 15 saves for the Greyhounds, and despite scoring in bursts (two goals in six seconds in the second quarter and two more in 50 seconds in the fourth), the Irish made things difficult for themselves by settling for poor looks at the net.
“You’re not going to win with five goals,’’ said coach Kevin Corrigan. “I think Notre Dame lacrosse is a testament to that since we sit here for the third year in a row without a trophy.’’
With the trophy just a win away, the year on the sidelines now seems worth the wait for Lusby.
“It’s been an unbelievable ride,’’ he said. “Definitely didn’t see it playing out this way, but I just give credit to all the guys, all the pieces just came together this year, everyone’s matured from a year ago last year.
“Coming back from the knee injury, I couldn’t ask for more.’’Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @julianbenbow.