Thornton is net profit for Loyola

October 14, 1993|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,Staff Writer

At 6 feet 2, 215 pounds, with the thick neck and broad shoulders of a football player, Zach Thornton is tough to miss on the street.

He is impossible to overlook on the soccer field.

Watch Thornton, Loyola's junior goalkeeper, charge an opposing forward who is approaching the penalty area with a point-blank shot on his mind. After a hard tackle that concludes with the forward on his back and Thornton on his feet holding the ball, one might think Thornton was a linebacker.

Watch him ruin an opponent's well-placed corner kick by leaping above everyone else in front of the net and grabbing the ball like a born rebounder, and one wonders if he belongs on a basketball court.

Watch him patrol the goal area with his intimidating blend of size and agility, and one gets an idea why Loyola's soccer team is 13-2, has clinched a fifth straight Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference title and is ranked 22nd in the nation this week.

"Zach brings the total package to our program," Loyola coach Bill Sento says. "He has quickness, excellent hands and the ability to control the ball in the air. He's by far the biggest goalie we've ever had, but he's as agile as a cat. And he's as humble and responsible and dedicated to the game as a coach could want."

Ask Thornton about his strengths in goal, and he shifts the conversation to his shortcomings. Ask him to describe his integral place on another fine Loyola team, and he would rather praise the players in front of him. Ask him if, after being recruited to play soccer and lacrosse at Loyola while attending John Carroll High School and Essex Community College, he felt he would make an immediate impact this fall, and he shakes his head.

"I didn't think I was playing that well [in preseason]," Thornton says. "I felt as though I was second [on the depth chart behind senior Paul Trizzino]. I still felt like I had to prove myself."

Since his days as an All-Metro soccer and lacrosse player at John Carroll and as a star in both sports at Essex, Thornton has been proving himself. Last year at Essex, after a freshman season cut short by a broken ankle, he was named the first-team goalkeeper on the All-Region XX team and earned first-team All-America honors.

But after starting slowly and finishing strong during summer camp at Loyola this year, Thornton was surprised to find out last month, before the Greyhounds' game at the University of San Francisco, that the starting job was his.

"Coach [Sento] didn't tell me I was starting until we were walking out to the van to head to the stadium," Thornton recalls. "I was real nervous. I just wanted to get the first save of my first game under my belt."

Thornton proceeded to do that and much more. His nine-save effort sparked Loyola to a 1-0 victory and a six-game winning streak. Since then, he has established himself as one of the nation's top goalkeepers.

Including last night's 3-2 victory over Howard in Washington for the Greyhounds' fifth straight win, Thornton has 70 saves and 11 shutouts in 14 games, including one against No. 9 Fresno State. He has allowed only six goals for a 0.43 goals-against average.

Thornton has had plenty of help. Loyola's defense, led by Billy Harte -- whom Sento calls the best marking man on the East Coast -- is superb. The offense averages 3.1 goals and already has five players -- Marc Harrison, Brian Geraghty, Will Cirrincione, Doug Willey and Bill Wnek -- with at least 10 points. Still, Thornton has elevated the Greyhounds to a higher level.

"He [Thornton] is so strong in the air and so quick. He knows that the inside of the box is his. And he can make the reaction save," senior defender Chris Sim says. "I've played with a few big goalies who would fall instead of dive. He has a lot of different abilities."

Check out Thornton at the midfield position with a lacrosse stick in his hand. At Essex last season, he capped a brilliant, two-year stint (38 goals, 10 assists) by leading the Knights to a 12-1 season that ended with a loss to Herkimer (N.Y.) in the national junior college title game. Thornton won 77 percent of his faceoffs last year. Loyola lacrosse coach Dave Cottle can't wait to see him in a Greyhounds uniform next spring.

"He's as big as a house with unbelievable speed," Cottle says. "He's had spurts of brilliance in lacrosse, and he has to raise his game to another level. He's already done that in soccer. I don't see any reason why he can't do it in lacrosse."

Essex lacrosse coach Tim Puls says: "He's the best fundamental shooter we've ever had, and I wouldn't stand in front of him when he's coming down the middle. But he has to learn to dominate games more. In Division I, you've got to want to dish out punishment. Zach is a gentle giant. But he's a great athlete, and he'll make the adjustments."

Thornton says he is learning to exert his influence more on the field.

"Friends have told me I can be intimidating," he says. "I've never used my size to my advantage until a little while ago."

Sento is glad to see it.

"He doesn't over-use his ability to intimidate, but several opponents have been helped off the field after collisions with him," he says. "The main thing is he gives our players more confidence. If a mistake is made, there's a strong possibility that Zach will clean it up."

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