ANNAPOLIS | Scott Ratliff snared a groundball and looked diagonally down the field Saturday afternoon. Justin Ward was there, below the scoreboard that showed so little time standing between top-seeded Loyola and the final four.
Ratliff heaved it, and in so doing dispensed with the few seconds left before the Greyhounds could celebrate their first final four appearance since 1998.
“It was just a pretty exciting moment, a moment you kind of dream about your whole life,” Ratliff said. “For it to finally be here, it’s pretty exciting.”
Loyola’s remarkable run —- from unranked in the preseason to the No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament —- will survive another week thanks to a 10-9 quarterfinal victory over Denver before 13,390 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
The Greyhounds (16-1) will meet the winner of tomorrow’s Notre Dame-Virginia quarterfinal Saturday in Foxborough, Mass.
Attackman Eric Lusby matched a career-high with five goals, thriving as a result of Denver’s decision to shut off Loyola star Mike Sawyer and take its chances with the rest of the Greyhounds’ potent offense.
Lusby punished the Pioneers (9-7), including three times on extra man.
Those were among four goals Loyola collected in the wake of Denver penalties. Pioneers coach Bill Tierney was exasperated with the officiating for much of the day, himself picking up Denver’s 10th infraction for arguing with the officials in the fourth quarter.
“It’s absurdly difficult,” Tierney said tersely of the need to play man-down so much.
Loyola created other headaches, particularly on faceoffs. Handling Denver’s Chase Carraro was an imposing task, especially after he helped the Pioneers win all but four of 25 draws in the teams’ first meeting last month.
The Greyhounds came far closer to an even split in the ECAC semifinals on May 2, winning 14 of 31 faceoffs. Then senior J.P. Dalton made another advance, securing 17 of 22 draws and denying the Pioneers the opportunity to string together several goals in a row for much of the day.
The aim was simple: Make every faceoff a 50-50 groundball and rely on Ratliff and Josh Hawkins to pounce off the wings. That pair combined for 11 groundballs, and Denver never scored more than three consecutive goals.
“I got the feeling of how to go against him the second time and then today I was able to get the clamps on him,” Dalton said.
He did more than that, ensuring the Greyhounds could dictate pace and complete a three-game sweep of the Pioneers this season.
“J.P. answered the bell today for us,” coach Charley Toomey said. “We expected to have some success because we started to in our last game against Denver. But I don’t think any of us expected to have the success we had today. We was a beast out there for us.”
The Greyhounds didn’t ease through. Their 10-6 lead was trimmed to 10-9 in the fourth quarter, and Denver earned one last chance to tie after Davis Butts’ ill-advised shot with 24 seconds remaining never made it to the cage.
Denver’s Cameron Flint felt he had a look in transition, but his shot with 15 seconds left glanced off defenseman Joe Fletcher’s stick and Ratliff chased down the rebound before making his final throw downfield.
“We always say he’s got a spider web,” Ratliff said. “Anything within his reach, he gets his hands on.”
It isn’t Loyola’s first time on the grandest platform in lacrosse. Fourteen years ago, another top-seeded Greyhound team was pulverized in the semifinals. Back in 1990, Loyola reached Memorial Day only to encounter as loaded a Syracuse team as there ever was.
The goalie for the Greyhounds 22 years ago? Charley Toomey, himself back in the final four for the first time since his playing days.
“Well, are the Gaits going to be there?” Toomey said, referring to the legendary ex-Syracuse stars.
No, they’re safely out of sight. But Loyola will be there. After Saturday, no obstacle remains between the Greyhounds and the chance to play on Memorial Day weekend.
—- Patrick Stevens