When the men’s lacrosse NCAA tournament bracket was announced May 9, it looked like No. 2-seed Duke was poised for a rematch against No. 7-seed Denver in the quarterfinals.
But this is postseason lacrosse, where anything can happen. And in true NCAA tournament fashion, Loyola pulled off the dramatic first-round upset against the Pioneers, setting up a quarterfinal contest between the Blue Devils and Greyhounds this Sunday at 12 p.m. in Notre Dame, Ind., with a trip to Championship Weekend on the line. This may not be the quarterfinal matchup most Duke fans were expecting, but like always the Blue Devils are simply prepared to face the opponent in front of them.
“Yeah we watched it, of course,” senior midfielder Nakeie Montgomery said of Loyola’s exhilarating first-round victory. “It was after our game, so we kind of caught it when we could…. Watched the end, definitely watched the end. I mean, it's just playoff lacrosse. That's how it goes—you don't win the game because you're supposed to.
“In any game or anything in life, to be honest, you don't win it, or you don't come out on top, because you're supposed to. You come out on top because you're prepared and you follow the plan, or maybe you're just better on your feet. Or maybe you're just better than your opponent that day. That's how sports work and your opponent always gets a vote.”
Similarly to Duke’s first-round foe in High Point, Loyola is coming into this game on a roll. The Greyhounds have won five straight contests, a winning streak that includes the aforementioned victory against Denver in addition to wins against No. 17 Navy and No. 13 Army (both of which just missed the NCAA tournament) as well as No. 5-seed Georgetown, which downed Syracuse 18-8 last Saturday to advance to the quarterfinals as well.
While Loyola’s success has relied on a true team effort, perhaps more so than other tournament teams this season, there are a few individual performers who stand out. Obviously there’s senior goalie Sam Shafer, whose incredible performance and last-second save against the Pioneers earned him USA Lacrosse Magazine Player of the Week honors. Alongside Shafer on the defensive end is second-team All-American LSM Ryan McNulty as well as honorable mention All-American defenseman Cam Wyers, who help anchor a Greyhound defense that ranks 11th in the country in goals allowed per game.
Regarding the other end of the field, Duke head coach John Danowski was quick to point out Loyola’s “interchangeable parts, which makes them really scary.” Leading that pack is senior attackmen Aidan Olmstead and Kevin Lindley, with the former posting a team-high 57 points this season and the latter holding the school record in career goals. Overall, though, what really fuels the Greyhounds is their focus on the fundamentals—Loyola’s 14.21 turnovers per game rank seventh nationally while the team’s .902 clearing percentage ranks fourth.
“They certainly are playing with a lot of emotion and a lot of confidence,” Danowski said of Loyola. “And they should be…. They’ve put together four really, really great wins.”
On the Duke side, the focus will once again be on attackman Michael Sowers. The Tewaaraton finalist is coming off an impressive eight-point showing against the Panthers in round one, with all eight of those points coming in the first half. Coincidentally, he sits just three points behind former Loyola great and 2019 Tewaaraton winner Patrick Spencer for second on the NCAA’s all-time points list.
“What I love about Mike Sowers, he's evolving into a Duke attackman,” Danowski said. “While he had eight points in the first half, he didn't have any in the second half. But he’s setting picks—he only had one turnover in the game, and that's a real testament to his decision making and his humility and unselfishness.”
Overall, Danowski said he likes how his team is evolving offensively, but acknowledges his squad still needs improvement in the clearing game, something he’s focused on this past week in practice. The Blue Devils finished 22-of-25 on clears against High Point but still sit just 35th in the country with an .850 clearing percentage on the year.
Duke enters the contest as 4.5-goal favorites, and a Loyola win would make the Greyhounds the first unseeded team to make the Final Four since 2017. But as Montgomery said, this is playoff lacrosse, and a streaking team like Loyola can never be counted out.
“[Everyone at Duke is] done with school, the fifth-year guys just finished their exams actually [Thursday], so we're spending all day together pretty much: breakfast, shooting, lunch, practice, dinner, movie night or team bonding or game night,” Montgomery said. “We're just happy that we do get to be together. This time last year obviously we were at home in quarantine with just our parents. So we're just excited to have another week, and that's kind of what we’re playing for right now, to get one more week together next week.”
Editor's note: A previous version of this article stated that Loyola ranks eighth in the country in goals allowed per game instead of 11th. The Chronicle regrets the error.
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