By Justin Lafleur
The teams broke the huddle. Scott Ratliff of Boston headed to his typical position at the defensive end of the field where he met a familiar face, Charlotte attackman and former Loyola teammate Eric Lusby. The two embraced and talked briefly as the teams waited for the go-ahead from ESPN2.
Teammates turned foes.
“We were catching up, nothing really about the game,” said Ratliff when asked what was said. “Just catching up, talking and staying in touch.”
Last May 28, 2012, the Loyola men’s lacrosse team capped off a tremendous season by beating Maryland for its first national championship in program history. Arguably the team’s most valuable players were Ratliff, Lusby, attackman Mike Sawyer and midfielder Josh Hawkins. Flash forward 432 days (to be exact) and those four found themselves together once again.
The last time this group was in a competitive lacrosse setting, they were celebrating their national title at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts. Lusby ended his senior season with a bang, scoring an NCAA Tournament record 17 goals, which propelled him to Charlotte of Major League Lacrosse. Sawyer, Ratliff and Hawks had one last hurrah in 2013, leading the Greyhounds to the NCAA Tournament for a second straight season.
Last Saturday served as a reunion of sorts. Boston and Loyola met on June 15, but it didn’t include Hawkins, who was traded from Hamilton to Charlotte just days before the July 6 meeting.
“The Loyola factor certainly came into the equation,” said Charlotte General Manager Wade Leaphart. “Lusby and Sawyer, the great teammates they are, had suggested keeping an eye on Hawkins. It was a perfect match not only in that sense, but he also fills a need for us. We love his style of play; we’re trying to beef up the defensive midfield and transition game as much as we can. It’s probably our biggest upgrade since last year.”
The timing of the trade was impeccable for Hawkins in more ways than one.
“I live close to Boston,” said the Amherst, Massachusetts native. “I’m excited to get my family out here and be with Sawyer and Lusby again. It’s special. It’s a good fit. The Charlotte Hounds are a good group of guys and they welcomed me right away. I’ve only known them for a night and it’s been awesome playing with them already.”
The four proved crucial in the Greyhounds’ championship run. Lusby and Sawyer finished 1-2 on the team in scoring with 71 and 62 points, respectively, Ratliff led Loyola with 88 groundballs and 37 caused turnovers while adding 12 goals and seven assists… as a long pole. Hawkins helped spearhead one of the nation’s top defensive midfield units, scooping 63 groundballs (second on the team).
It was extra special for the four to compete on the same field. It wasn’t just any game. Entering Saturday tied for the final playoff spot, the Cannons won a back-and-forth overtime classic in front of its home crowd, and a nationally televised audience.
Ratliff won this round, posting a career-high six groundballs while covering Lusby and holding his former teammate to a single goal. At least two of the grounders came off Hawkins shots in transition. Wherever you looked, you saw a former Greyhound making his mark.
Not to be forgotten is defensemen Steve Dircks, also from the championship squad. He is on Charlotte’s roster, but wasn’t on the active roster for Saturday’s game.
Ratliff was the only former Greyhound from that 2012 team on Boston.
“It is a little weird,” admitted Ratliff after the game. “I would’ve loved to play with these guys at the next level, but it’s just as fun playing against them.
“I didn’t want to check him; Eric is my good friend. As the game heated up, we both went on our own and didn’t think of each other as friends, but more as competitors.”
The developed chemistry, especially between Lusby and Sawyer at attack, proves significant in a league which features just one night of practice before the weekend’s game.
“Particularly in Charlotte, 80 percent of our players don’t live here so the amount of time we do get together is crucial,” said Leaphart.
“We definitely have chemistry,” said Lusby. “When you’re playing with guys in school, having practiced every single day, you build that chemistry. If you’re fortunate enough to play with them at the professional level, you want to carry that through.”
Lusby and Sawyer currently stand fourth and fifth on the team in scoring, with 18 and 13 points, respectively. After Sawyer was selected by Charlotte in January’s collegiate draft, the two knew they would be reuniting come the summer.
“I told Mike I was excited to play with him, but I wanted him to be focused on the Loyola season,” said Lusby. “I knew they had the postseason coming up, so I wanted to make sure he was focused on that.”
“Having Eric here has definitely helped,” said Sawyer, a finalist for the 2012 Tewaaraton Award. “I’m comfortable with him on and off the field.”
Lusby gave Sawyer some advice, warning that it’s a different game at the professional level.
“I told him it’s a little different, just because of the 60-second shot clock,” said Lusby. “You’re so used to running set plays and an offensive scheme in college, but it’s more free motion in this league. Let the game come to you. Take your shots. Don’t force it too much, but he’s got a really good shot so I told him if he has a shot, take it.”
That advice must have helped as Sawyer was recently named a Major League Lacrosse All-Star. Not bad for a rookie.
In the end, the reunion was fitting. Hawkins was traded just days before the matchup, it was right up the road from the team’s national championship 14 months earlier and it was a nationally-televised ESPN2 game which went a long way towards playoff positioning. Everything fell into place.
“I talked to a family from Baltimore who followed us through that whole championship run,” said Hawkins. “Boston has been a great place for Loyola to play. It’s awesome to be on the field with these guys. I came down in transition one time and Scott got after me, so we’re playing hard against each other. We try to get after each other. It’s a lot of fun.”