As his players fielded questions at a post-game news conference, Loyola College lacrosse coach Dave Cottle made sure he was in the room for the big one.
"Brown Invitational? Is that on the schedule?" asked Cottle, smiling.
No. 3 Loyola made the tournament date even more significant yesterday, as the Greyhounds defeated No. 2 and defending national champion North Carolina, 7-6, before 4,327 at Curley Field.
Loyola (3-0) will probably move into the No. 2 position in the national rankings this week. If both the Greyhounds and No. 1 Syracuse keep winning, the teams could meet in the championship of the Fleet Invitational on March 29 in Providence, R.I.
Cottle, in his 10th year at Loyola, tries to evade questions about the showdown, saying that the Greyhounds still have to play highly regarded Massachusetts, Brown and C.W. Post within a seven-day span before possibly getting a shot at the Orangemen.
"Even if Coach wasn't here, we still would say this team can't look too far ahead," said Loyola senior defenseman Sean Quinn. "Last year, we looked past some games and got upset."
But this is a different team than a year ago, one that can be a serious threat to win the national title. The Greyhounds have a great attack, a solid midfield and seemed to have overcome their Achilles' heel the past two seasons -- Loyola now can play good man-to-man defense.
The Greyhounds used it, except for two offensive series, yesterday to hand North Carolina (2-2) its second consecutive loss for the first time since 1989. And more importantly, three freshmen played major roles, including goalie Tim McGeeney (North County High) and defensemen Stan Ross (Boys' Latin) and Jason Foley.
McGeeney finished with 17 saves, many from point-blank range, including a shot from attackman John Webster with 9:55 left in the third quarter. That play seemed to inspire Loyola, which finished with two goals in the remaining time for a 6-4 lead at the end of the quarter.
"There were a lot of questions about our defense in the preseason, and I think we were definitely underestimated," said Quinn, who started on defense yesterday with Ross and senior Barker Harrison. "But I think that made us want to succeed even more. You have to be careful with surprises. You never know what you may get."
For the first quarter yesterday, Cottle got a midfield and defense that cleared the ball only one of seven times, as the Greyhounds were outshot, 12-4. Loyola was fortunate to trail only 2-0 at the end of the period.
But Loyola settled down in the second quarter, and a goal each by attackman Jim Blanding and midfielder Gary Miller pulled Loyola within 3-2 at the half.
"I think we had some jitters early and North Carolina has such great team speed that it forces you to make decisions quickly," said Cottle. "But you could see us gaining confidence. Last year, we couldn't clear the ball out of our zone defense, so we decided to stick with the man-to-man today. The younger guys are willing to learn and play it. If we had changed, it would have shown a weakness."
The defense was not the only group to show improvement later in the game. Cottle gave his attack an inspiring talk at halftime, and Loyola responded with three unanswered goals in the final 11 minutes of the third period, as attackman Kevin Jedlicka scored two and midfielder Bob Curry one.
Loyola seemed to gain control when Miller scored his second goal of the day with 13:29 left in the game for a 7-4 Greyhounds lead. But Webster scored on an underhand shot with 8:35 remaining, and Tar Heels midfielder Donnie McNichol scored on a quick dodge outside the crease nearly two minutes later.
North Carolina, though, was called for a one-minute cross-check penalty with 1:35 left in the game. Loyola ran out the remaining time.
"I thought we were going to complete the comeback," said North Carolina goalie Billy Daye, who played well with 14 saves, including six in the final period. "It's been tough losing back-to-back, especially coming off a championship year. I didn't think this would happen to us."
N.Carolina 2 1 1 2 -- 6
Loyola 0 2 4 1 -- 7
Goals: NC--Webster 2, Seremet, Speers, Wade, McNichol; L--Jedlicka 2, Miller 2, Blanding, Nugent, Curry. Assists: NC--Webster, Bedell, Wade; L--Blanding 3, Beach 2, Ubriaco. Saves: NC--Daye 14. L--McGenney 17.