FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Maybe missing Eric Lusby had something to do with Loyola (Md.) missing last year’s NCAA tournament.
Lusby, who blew out his knee in a first-round, season-ending loss to Cornell in 2010, tried to come back last season. But after two games in 2011, it was clear he wasn’t ready to play eight months after surgery to repair a torn ACL in his right knee.
So Lusby redshirted and the Greyhounds went on to an 8-5 finish. And then at the start of this year, Loyola wasn’t even ranked.
All that might as well be ancient history, because Monday the top-seeded Greyhounds will play in the 2012 NCAA Men’s Lacrosse Championship Division I title game thanks to Lusby, who scored five goals and had an assist in a 7-5 victory against Notre Dame.
“This is great,” said Lusby, an attacker from Severna Park, Md., just about a 45-minute drive from Loyola’s campus. “This year has just been extremely fun. We’re having so much fun together and no one would have thought we have made it this far.”
This far? Since losing to Syracuse in the 1990 NCAA title game, Loyola has made 15 NCAA appearances and only once, losing to Maryland in the 1998 semifinals, have the Greyhounds made it past the quarterfinals. As an aside, the All-American goalie for Loyola was its current head coach, Charley Toomer.
His goalie Saturday, sophomore Jack Runkel, put on an all-world performance with a career-high 15 saves. He had the luxury of never trailing and holding Notre Dame twice to stretches of more than minutes without scoring.
Loyola (17-1) led 4-1 with 10:47 to halftime on Lusby’s third goal. However, the Irish bounced back with two goals in six seconds, pulling to 4-3 with 2:04 to halftime. Loyola rebuilt the lead to 5-3 when Josh Hawkins made a marvelous run from midfield and bounced in a score with 3 seconds to halftime.
Two Lusby third-quarter goals made it 7-3 and the Greyounds hung on to make their first NCAA championship game.
“They made more plays than we did and deserved to win,” said Notre Dame coach Kevin Corrigan, whose Irish have scored exactly five goals in their season-ending losses three years in a row. “I didn’t think we played very well. There’s no quit in our guys but we just didn’t play well today.”
They took 28 shots.
It was all made easier because of Lusby, now a graduate student working on his MBA who couldn’t have been playing better when Loyola was playing Cornell in the first round in 2010. He had 20 goals and five assists in a season that ended in a flash.
“It was the third quarter. I turned the ball over. I was playing midfield then. I tried to cause a turnover but the guy split me to the inside and I tried to open up with him. My leg stuck in the ground like this and just tore everything in my knee.”
Loyola went on to lose that game 13-10 in triple overtime. And then last year the Greyhounds failed to make the NCAA tournament.
The surgery was June 7, almost two years ago. When the 2011 season started, “I knew practicing I had a lot of scar tissue in my patella tendon that I was going to have to rip through and I tried and gave it a go but it was just so painful to play. I knew I couldn’t help the team.
“I was slower, I couldn’t move. I had missed the whole fall and barely played in the preseason. I had missed a lot of practice time with the team to get my skills where they needed to be. It was tough, because I wasn’t going to be able to play with the seniors I came in with. All my good friends.”
That was a hard one for Toomey, too.
“It ripped our heart out then but it hurt even more in the Towson game when he had to run off the field when he tried to come back,” Toomey said. “It was tough.
“But Eric’s a great kid and we’re so excited that he was able to come back and that he wanted to come back and be a part of the locker room.”
Lusby, 6-foot, 190 pounds, now has 50 goals and 17 assists in 2012. Junior teammate Mike Sawyer, who had an assist on one of Lusby’s goals, has 51 goals and nine assists, giving Loyola two 50-goal scorers for the first time in history.
“Playing with Eric has been great this year,” Sawyer said. “I think we are able to feed off each other, and I know that we open things up for each other. It has definitely allowed me to have some shots this year that I didn’t have last year.”
For that matter, while Notre Dame is stuck on five goals, this made back-to-back five-goal games for Lusby, who had that many in Loyola’s 10-9 quarterfinal victory over Denver last weekend.
“We knew going in that Notre Dame had a great defense so give them credit for their game plan and everything, but I was just lucky today,” Lusby said. “I found myself on the receiving end of hard dodges from our middies. Notre Dame likes to play a help defense and they suck down inside and that opened up some skip passes and you get to the backside quick enough you can get some dodges get you close. So I guess I was receiving a lot more today.”
“It’s just a completely different thing when you have two guys who can shoot it as well as Eric and Mike can on opposite sides of the attack,” Loyola junior midfielder Scott Ratliff said. “It completely changes the dynamic of our offense. We wouldn’t be where we are today without it. It’s just head and shoulders better with him out in the field.”
That wasn’t lost on Corrigan.
“They’re really dangerous in transition and part of that is because Lusby and Sawyer are such good shooters. In transition they tend to get a little time and space and those guys are really good on the backside [of the goal],” Corrigan said. “In their offense one or the other of those guys is on the backside of the field and when they can skip the ball and get those opportunities those guys are going to get the same time and space they get in transition. They’re really good shooters and when they have those opportunities those are tough saves for a goalie to make.”
And now Loyola is one victory from winning it all.
“Not only did we miss Eric’s shot but we missed his leadership,” Toomey said. “It’s tough to lead from the sideline. Eric came to every practice with the team although he was in the training room rehabbing, he was in that locker room. And I think as a student-athlete he would be the first one to tell you it’s tough when you can’t help your teammates.