The Loyola University Maryland men's soccer team is starting to bear the fruits of head coach Steve Nichols' hard work the past four years.
The list of accolades keeps growing for Nichols and his Greyhounds after a giant two-year turnaround: two Patriot League Coach of the Year awards; the conference Midfielder of the Year; Goalkeeper of the Year and Rookie of the Year awards; seven all-conference selections; a Patriot League regular-season title; and the top seed in the upcoming Patriot League Tournament.
But the prizes they truly covet -- a Patriot League Tournament championship and automatic NCAA College Cup berth -- are still waiting to be captured.
"We told the guys the goal this year was to win the conference tournament and get to the NCAAs," Nichols said. "We tried to explain to them that it would be much easier for us to get there if we could play at home during the tournament. I think the guys are excited to play in front of their fans. They'll be really amped up, and I think it would mean a lot more for them to hopefully be able to win at home and lift that trophy here."
Loyola clinched its first Patriot League regular-season title since entering the league in 2013 on Nov. 4 when the Greyhounds beat Lafayette, 1-0, at home after first-place Boston University had been upset by sixth-place Colgate, 4-0.
The Greyhounds, who earned the right to host the Patriot League semifinals and championship game, begin their quest for the championship and NCAA berth Nov. 10 at the Ridley Athletic Complex at 5:05 p.m. against the lowest-remaining seed to advance from the quarterfinals. Boston University, which also gets a bye as the second seed, will face the other quarterfinal winner at 7:05 p.m. The Nov. 12 championship game is scheduled for 3:05 p.m.
A conference tournament championship would be the program's first since 2009 and the culmination of what already has been a remarkable turnaround.
A regional and Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference powerhouse prior to joining the Patriot League, the Greyhounds had seen that status fade and were considered one of the worst teams in the nation in 2015 after winning two games overall and going winless in the Patriot League in Nichols' second season. During and after that season the coach and his staff began pounding the recruiting trail and bringing in top regional and national talent.
Loyola's first nationally ranked recruiting class, rated 13th by College Soccer News, helped the Greyhounds improve by six victories to 8-6-3 in 2016 and produced five of the team's seven all-conference selections this year. Another 13 newcomers were added this year, and the victory total improved by three as Loyola enters the postseason 11-5-1 overall and 7-2-0 in the Patriot League.
"It's been about changing the culture of the team," junior captain and first-team all-conference defender Mickey Watson said. "My freshman year we didn't have a culture or any kind of team identity. We weren't really doing the little things, and some of the guys were going through the motions. Last year that started to change and this year it's gotten even better since we have all Coach Steve's recruits now."
Nichols was able to lure top recruits to Loyola by selling the outstanding academic reputation of the school and the Patriot League, the university's commitment to soccer, state-of-the-art facilities and a long tradition of soccer success.
"I was recruited by a lot of top programs, but Loyola was always at the top of that list," sophomore first-team all-conference forward Brian Saramago said. "I bought into Coach Nichols' vision for the future and that this was a great place and we were going to win."
An all-region performer and two-time team MVP as an undergrad at Loyola, Nichols led the Greyhounds to a 28-7-8 overall mark and a 13-0-0 MAAC record and two conference titles during the 1989 and 1990 seasons. He played for Loyola Hall of Fame coach Bill Sento, who turned the Greyhounds into a regional powerhouse during the 1980s and '90s.
Loyola made three NCAA Tournament appearances under Sento from 1986-1996, advancing to the second round and quarterfinals twice and earning a preseason No. 1 national ranking at one point. The Greyhounds then made five more NCAA trips under Nichols' predecessor Mark Mettrick.
Nichols called the Loyola job "the opportunity of a lifetime" when he left the national prep powerhouse he had built at the McDonogh School to take over in 2014. The goal that has driven him since that day is to return the Greyhounds to their place among the regional and national soccer elite.
"I was sitting on top of the world at McDonough," Nichols said. "We were a perennial national power and I was running one of the most successful youth club programs in the nation, but I was excited to come back to Loyola and rebuild the program. The university had changed my life, and I owed so much to Bill Sento and all the people at the university who had helped make me who I am."
Regardless of the outcome of the Patriot League Tournament, the future is bright for a program that features only two seniors on a freshman- and sophomore-dominated roster.
"There's no reason we can't become a program that can beat anyone in the country on a given day and be an NCAA Tournament team every year," Nichols said. "Our recruiting class next year isn't as large as this year's, but it's just as good. I'm really happy with who we are and what we stand for right now, but am more excited for what the future holds. It just shows that if you do things the right way and grind it out that there's always light at the end of the tunnel -- even if at times you don't think you'll ever see that light."