Sam Shafer, Avatar for Loyola's Resurrection, Back to Having Fun in the Cage


Sam Shafer lost his starting job in mid-April. He came back to reclaim the job and make the biggest save of the lacrosse season.

Sam Shafer was still processing the gravity of a game-saving stop that was probably the biggest play of his career — not to mention Loyola’s 14-13 defeat of Denver in Sunday’s NCAA tournament first-round game — when a fellow goalie reached out with a text message.

“That’s the save that every little goalie dreams of in their backyard,” Shafer recalled reading this week. “You just made that save.”

A month earlier, it was fair to wonder whether Shafer would even be on the field again before the season was through.

The senior is an avatar for the unseeded Greyhounds’ in-season resurrection, a rise from 5-5 to an NCAA quarterfinal date with second-seeded Duke on Sunday in South Bend, Ind.

“When you see Shafe playing the way he is, it brings everyone up around him,” coach Charley Toomey said. “I don’t want to say it gives us the ability to risk-take, but we keep using the word trust. You trust each other defensively. Our defensemen are trusting our goalie that if they do their job, he’s going to make the save. You’re seeing that trust factor, that energy factor when the defense gets a big stop, the sideline is going crazy right now.”

Shafer proved an able replacement for former All-America goalie Jacob Stover last season, managing a .571 save percentage in six games. But he was less consistent this season, and Toomey talked about a weekly battle for the position in practice. When Shafer let in three goals without a stop in less than 10 minutes against Army on April 10, Toomey made a change.

Freeman Whitaker played the rest of the game and started the next week against Navy. Shafer, with a .496 save percentage, faced some challenging discussions with a coach who’d played the position at a high level.

“He doesn’t try to sugarcoat it, and he told it as it was,” Shafer said. “I probably didn’t want to hear how it was. He pointed out some things I needed to focus on, and I got to work focusing on those and just trying to get that spot. I’ve been here four years, and this is my senior year and I worked so hard to be in this position. But they were tough conversations to have, especially at that point in the season. Things aren’t going the way they’re supposed to.”

Loyola, a postseason regular with a national title and two final four trips in the last decade, isn’t accustomed to scuffling around .500 in mid-April. And Shafer knew there were mechanical things to work out if he was going to help the Greyhounds.

Opponents noticed his tendency to keep his hands really low, leading to a barrage of high shots. There were times he thought he was well positioned when he actually wasn’t. There was also the need for a mental reset to bounce back.

Shafer was unquestionably disappointed, but supported Whitaker throughout that week — something that did not go unnoticed in Loyola’s locker room.

“He’s the type of guy that if something happens to him on the field like it did against Army, he’s not going to sulk about it,” long pole Ryan McNulty said. “He’s the first one to pump up Freeman and Colton [Teitelbaum] and Luke Staudt. He’s just been so positive through it all, and I think it helps him now because he knows he can do it and the guys trust in him and the coaches trust in him.”

When Toomey chose to go back to Shafer at halftime against Navy — with the Greyhounds down 10-5 and on their way to their third loss in four games — the senior figured the best approach was to just go out and play. He made six saves and allowed four goals, and the job was his again.

Shafer stopped at least half of the shots on goal in all five games since resuming the starting duties. He made 13 saves on April 29 against Georgetown, an upset that revitalized the Greyhounds’ postseason hopes. He had 12 stops in a rematch against Army in the Patriot League semifinals on May 7.

Two days later, Loyola earned one of the last at-large spots in the tournament.

“When I think back on it, I just wasn’t having as much fun as I should be playing this sport,” Shafer said. “We all love this sport, and we should enjoy going out and playing every day. I think the week after Navy, it was just fun. We had fun at practice, and I got that passion back for the sport. I wasn’t thinking, I was just playing.”

Winning is fun. Winning like Loyola did Sunday is even better. Facing a possession disparity, Shafer made a career-high 16 saves against Denver, including a memorable stuff of Alex Simmons with five seconds left to preserve the one-goal lead.

Standing a few feet away from Shafer as time expired amid the delirium of the Greyhounds’ celebration, McNulty couldn’t help but to repeatedly say, “I can’t believe he just did that.” But he fully understands how closely the course of Shafer’s season tracks with his team’s revival.

“There’s definitely a parallel,” McNulty said. “The way our season has been has been up and down, you can say that about the earlier parts of Sam’s season. But now, when Sam’s playing great, Loyola’s playing great. It does start with him, and against Denver, it ended with him. We just hope it keeps going like that.”

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