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Loyola Maryland National Championship Lacrosse NCAA
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Is The College Champion Always The BEST Team?

Editor’s Note: Ryan Connors was a part of the 2011 Mercyhurst team that won the D2 National Championship, so he has some first hand perspective on college champions truly being the best team or not! Today he’s looking at Loyola, and whether they were the best team in college lacrosse, or the team that played the best when it counted most. The theory is very interesting!


First off, let me just say that this is NOT an article bashing Loyola… it’s not even close to that. In fact, I will actually admit to hopping on the Loyola band wagon half way through the 2012 season – as I just love a good underdog story. So while I was pulling for Loyola and really like them as a team, I want to point out that the Hounds were not the best team in DI this year, even if they won the National Championship.

Of course, for the above statement to be true, the following must also be true: being the best team in the country is not what the NCAA tournament is about.

And I always tell my players, “the team playing the best lacrosse will win the tournament,” and this year’s Loyola Greyhounds proved my point to a T.

Loyola Maryland National Championship Lacrosse NCAA

I’ll start off with the “facts”, that most, if not all, people can agree on: 1) Loyola is the smallest school to win the NCAA tournament. 2) Loyola started this season unranked. 3) Loyola entered the tournament as the #1 seed, but was still considered an underdog by most, and in many of their games.

Now, keeping all that in mind, I can definitely say Loyola was not the #1 team this year. But that is the beauty of the NCAA tournament!

The NCAAs allow for the team playing the best lacrosse to win, and that is not always the best overall team. I believe this is also the true essence of the sport of lacrosse…  The better team does not always win – the team that plays better lacrosse usually wins.  One could argue that the statement holds true in many other sports, and while I agree it does occur in some, it definitely does not happen in all of them, or as often.

It simply isn’t as common that we hear a Cinderella story in baseball, hockey, college basketball or the NBA. So let’s look at the 2012 Loyola lacrosse team a little closer, compare them to some of the other 2012 college teams, and see why what The Hounds accomplished as a group is truly special.

Loyola Maryland National Championship Lacrosse NCAA

Loyola entered the tournament as the 1 seed – but even as the 1 seed, they had to beat a tough Denver team and an even better Notre Dame team just to get to the championship game.  Most people didn’t have Loyola making it out of both those first games, let alone the championship game, with wins. However, Loyola played good lacrosse all season long and started playing great lacrosse going into their conference tournament and the NCAA tournament.

A number of other squads seemed better entering the conference playoff portion of the season. Duke had senior leadership, tournament experience and a great deal of depth.  Virginia was coming off a Natty of their own, and had Steele Stanwick at the helm with a tough zone defense.  Notre Dame had the best goalie and best defense in all of college lacrosse.  Dever and Mark Matthews? Enough said, plus they looked like they were gelling. I firmly believe that all of these teams were better than Loyola – but that doesn’t matter!

The Greyhounds played great lacrosse from start to finish when it counted and truly earned their title.  I can’t take that away from them, and won’t try. I’m not arguing that they didn’t deserve it, or that they aren’t national champs. They did, and they are.

But I would like to look at what makes their run even more special, and how a “not” Top Team can win it all, even in the face of obvious shortcomings. Here were a couple of the Hounds biggest obstacles:

It was obvious that Loyola didn’t have the depth of some of the other teams such as Duke and Notre Dame, as the Hounds barley played 20 players. And two games in one weekend is tough, especially with higher heat and humidity.  Loyola did it with just 20 players and there were zero signs of fatigue.  Notre Dame practically ran three lines in the semi-final game. Loyola couldn’t because they didn’t have the depth of the other programs.

Loyola couldn’t win a face off!  Lacrosse is a game of possessions, and Loyola was practically giving free possessions away.  If someone told me that Loyola would win only 3 face offs and still bring home a title – I would have slapped them in the face.  Face offs were a problem for Loyola all tournament yet some how they managed to win.

I don’t want to take away from the Greyhounds stellar defensive performance, but there were obvious times where Loyola’s defense struggled, particularly at the close defense position. Notre Dame exposed the questionable feet of some of the close defense men. Loyola was slow to go all game, and if one of their defenders got beat – it usually resulted in a shot or a goal.

Loyola Maryland National Championship Lacrosse NCAA

However, in the championship game – Loyola was slow to go, but when they did slide they came hard, heavy and on target. They used a very effective and smart team slide defense. You could see a high level of trust between defenders – a level of trust that I had not seen in many other teams, excepting Virginia. It was this trust among teammates that allowed for the team to play at such a high level and see so much success.

One could say that Loyola had Mike Sawyer and Eric Lusby – two players that are standout offensive studs. And, while this is true, every team has their stand outs.  Most teams have more than just two “star” players.  Loyola didn’t have much after these two players. In my opinion, there was quite a drop off skill-wise, and in the opinion of the numbers, there was a definite drop stat wise. And that didn’t matter.

If you watched the championship game, you saw everyone on offense make plays.  That is what it takes to win the biggest games.  They may have been overlooked or doubted, but when Loyola’s offense needed points… everyone got it done.  Early in the playoffs everyone was talking about Ratliff, the LSM, scoring goals in transition. Then it was ALL Lusby, and then Butts and Layne started coming up big from the midfield. Everyone who hit the field made a difference.

Loyola Maryland National Championship Lacrosse NCAA

Maybe you can chalk this up to the fact that instead of getting a whole week to prepare, the finalists have an incredibly short turn around.  This means there isn’t much preparation time, practice or scheming.  What this turn around leaves is two teams going out on a field and playing lacrosse for 60 mins…  Just two teams going out and playing – and that is what lacrosse is all about.

Like I said before – I am not bashing Loyola.  I fell in love with this team and pulled for them all tournament.  They were appropriately rewarded, and even helped me change my mind on some things! For example, I used to not be a fan of conference tournaments, but now I am all for it.  If a team gets hot towards the end of the season, they can run it all the way to the Final Four, and that’s incredible to see.

Take the 2011 Virginia squad for example.  They lost their best defenseman halfway through the season, and then dismissed their two best midfielders at the end of the season.  Yet they were able to win a National Championship, because they played the best lacrosse in the tournament, and the Cavs were a huge fan favorite.

In 2012, Loyola went out there and got the job done when it counted, and while they might not have been the best overall team this year, they certainly deserved their first-ever National Championship in men’s lacrosse, and at the end of the year, on Memorial Day Weekend, there wasn’t a better team in the land.

What do YOU think? Was Loyola the BEST? Or did they play the best when it counted most? Could they be both?