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Army men’s lax defeats Loyola, clinches top Patriot seed

Photo by Mark Wellman

Army men’s lacrosse goalie Sean Byrne said he and his teammates treated Friday night’s contest at Loyola (Md.) as a playoff game. 

Win and it was likely that the Black Knights would finish first in the Patriot League and receive a much-coveted first-round bye in the postseason tournament that starts on Tuesday and the opportunity to host both semifinal games and the championship game next weekend. 

Lose and Army was destined to finish in sixth place in the league, meaning a first-round game at the opponent’s home field and a much more difficult journey to the postseason title and its automatic spot in the NCAA tournament that begins in early May. 

What do they say about when the going gets tough?

Thanks to fourth-quarter goals by sophomore Gunnar Fellows, senior Reese Burek and junior Jackson Eicher plus a couple of late point-blank saves by Byrne, the Black Knights survived, beating the Greyhounds 13-11.

For the first time since 2010, the Patriot League postseason champion will be determined at Michie Stadium, home of Army.

“I think we all understood that this was like the first playoff game of the postseason for us and we practiced like it all week,” said Byrne, a 6-foot-3 sophomore from Acworth, Ga. who had 14 saves in the game. “This team plays much better in the bigger games and in the bigger situations. As a team, and individually, we were totally focused on the game tonight. We all knew what we had to do and what our jobs were and if we did them we were confident that we would come out with a win.”

Just eight days ago, it did not appear that Army would end up in this position. Despite a stellar 11-2 record, the No. 12-ranked Black Knights suffered its only losses to league opponents Boston University and Colgate during the season, giving them a lot to overcome to gain the top seed. But, Boston University lost to Lehigh in overtime last weekend and beat Colgate on Friday night to give Army the opportunity to finish in first place. 

All the Black Knights had to do was defeat Loyola, a team that entered the game with a 7-6 record, but with five straight victories against Patriot League competition. 

And, win Army did, thanks to four goals from the always-steady Burek, three goals from sophomore Evan Plunkett and two goals each from senior Jacob Morin and Eicher. It also did not hurt that junior faceoff specialist Will Coletti, who missed last week’s game against Bucknell with a back injury, returned to form on Friday, winning 64 percent of his faceoffs, grabbing seven groundballs and scoring a first-half goal. 

“Early on, our offense was great,” said Army coach Joe Alberici. “They were having a tough time covering both Reese and Evan and we put up nine goals in the first half, which is outstanding. The problem was they were scoring too and it was 9-8 at the half.”

With both teams switching in and out of zone defenses, the scoring slowed dramatically in the second half. Fellows’ goal with 10:29 left in the game put Army up 11-10 and Burek picked up a loose ball and scored about two minutes later to give the Black Knights a 12-10 lead. 

The Greyhounds cut the lead to one with a man-up score, but Eicher’s goal with three minutes left again gave Army a two-goal advantage at 13-11. 

“Loyola kept the pressure up and had another man-up situation but Sean played great in the fourth quarter, in particular, and was huge with those point-blank saves,” noted Alberici. “We all knew that a win against Loyola was like winning twice. A win got us a bye in the first round and the ability to not play on Tuesday. Hosting is terrific and we have a chance to rest the team over the next three days before we get ready for our next opponent.” 

Lehigh finished in second place and received the other bye. On Tuesday, Navy, the third seed, hosts Boston University, while Loyola will travel to fourth-seeded Colgate. Army will face the lowest seed remaining in one of two semifinals Friday at Michie Stadium. The championship game is Sunday. 

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