Leap Year At Loyola

May 20, 1994|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,Sun Staff Writer

It was the defining moment in a year that will be remembered as the dizzying period when Loyola grew up in the arena of Division I college sports.

The Greyhounds scored upsets on back-to-back nights to win the women's and men's Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference basketball tournaments and were bound for an NCAA tournament for the first time.

"I had seniors come up to me that week and tell me this was thfirst time that it really felt like a college campus," said Tom Scheye, acting president of Loyola. "The week between Albany and Sacramento [where the men's team lost to Arizona in the first round of the West Regional] is one the students will talk about at their 25th-year reunion.

"This didn't happen overnight. It just looks that way."

When he became athletic director at Loyola College in 1991, Joe Boylan said he felt he had inherited a program that soon would change the impression of Evergreen as a place where academicians played sports on the side with occasional success.

But Boylan never dreamed the Greyhounds would cash in on the playing field this dramatically.

Five Loyola teams -- men's soccer, men's and women's basketball, men's and women's lacrosse -- qualified for the NCAA tournament this year. Five teams out of an athletic department that consists of only 14 sports. Five teams that have combined to transform the image of the little Jesuit school on Charles Street.

"We came into this year thinking we would have a pretty good year," Boylan said. "The amazing thing is the school had targeted those five teams to make the tournament. Did we think it would happen in one year? No."

"To look at Loyola College, as small as we are, and to say we sent five teams to national tournaments this year is unbelievable," said Diane Aikens, in her sixth year as women's lacrosse coach.

Aikens guided the Greyhounds to the NCAAs for the first time since 1990. After beating Harvard on Saturday in its first-round playoff contest, the Greyhounds advanced to this weekend's Final Four at College Park, where they will play Maryland tomorrow in the semifinals.

The men's lacrosse team also is in the playoffs, making its seventh consecutive NCAA appearance in tomorrow's quarterfinals, against visiting Brown.

Win or lose this weekend, the Greyhounds already have turned more heads than ever. It started last fall, when the men's soccer team nearly stole a second-round NCAA playoff game from Virginia, before losing, 2-1. Loyola was the only team to lead Virginia, the eventual national champion, in the tournament.

Three months later on that magical weekend in Albany, N.Y., Loyola experienced the most improbable breakthrough in the history of its athletic program.

First, the women's team, led by Patty Stoffey and coached by Pat Coyle, overcame sizable deficits in two straight games to win the MAAC crown. That capped the first winning season for the Greyhounds in Division I.

The next night, the men's team overcame an early, 16-point deficit, then upset Manhattan with a late rally sparked by freshmen Darius Johnson and Milton Williams. Before that weekend, the fifth-seeded Greyhounds had never won a MAAC tournament game.

"I never felt so much bonding with everybody on campus before, even with people I didn't know," recalled Stoffey, who watched the men's team beat Manhattan with 700 other students in front of a giant-screen TV in Reitz Arena. "I don't think there is anything that compares to going to the NCAA tournament. We finally got to be a part of March Madness."

Soccer, lacrosse set stage

This year's success comes 13 years after Loyola moved from Division II to Division I. The school was unaffiliated with any conference. Funding was tight. Alumni contributions were sparse. Recruiting was a frustrating exercise for a school that was competing with bigger, established schools for blue-chip prospects. Coaches lacked experience. Losing seasons were the norm.

But Loyola reaped early Division I rewards with men's lacrosse coach Dave Cottle and men's soccer coach Bill Sento.

In his second year, 1981, Sento had his first winning record. By 1986, the Greyhounds played in their first NCAA tournament. Cottle also needed just two years to achieve his first winning season. His team went to its first national tournament in 1988 and came within a victory of the championship in 1990.

Loyola headed into the 1990s with promise. Under the direction of its longtime president, the late Rev. Joseph Sellinger, and former athletic director Tom Brennan, the Greyhounds had begun to add scholarships and funds for equipment. And 20 years after the school began admitting women, Loyola was placing more emphasis on women's athletics.

By all accounts, Sellinger's pivotal decision was hiring Boylan three years ago to replace Brennan.

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