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Griffs work their way into NCAA spotlight

Their season appeared headed for an empty ending, just like the three before it. No Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament berth. No chance at the NCAAs. For the 16 Canisius College seniors who had yearned to depart having enriched the school's lacrosse legacy, the prospect of unfilfulling careers gnawed at their insides. They teetered on the brink of becoming the first class in a decade never to have qualified for postseason play.

And then, just like that, their season turned in defiance of past performance. The Griffs qualified for the MAACs by winning their last two conference games. They captured the MAAC Tournament crown by avenging two emphatic regular-season losses. They're riding high on a wave of emotion and belief in pursuit of yet another improbability -- a victory over top-seeded Loyola (Md.) in this afternoon's first-round NCAA Tournament game in Baltimore (5 p.m., ESPNU).

It's another formidable challenge. Loyola, which is a member of the MAAC in all sports except men's and women's lacrosse, has lost once all season, to powerhouse Johns Hopkins, in overtime. Some 6,000 supporters will be in attendance, providing a distinct homefield advantage at the Ridley Athletic Complex. Yet at practice this week the Griffs saw nothing more than opportunity.

"This year there's been a lot of upsets and parity in college lacrosse and it's getting more and more like that every year," said senior Jimmy Haney, the conference tournament MVP.

"When we play together we're pretty great," said coach Randy Mearns. "We're going there to win."

The Griffs started 1-3 in conference and along the way blew an 8-3 lead in a 9-8 loss at Jacksonville. "Probably the most heartbreaking loss I've been a part of," said senior captain Justin Maderer (Orchard Park). "I know a lot of the guys will tell you the same."

The sting lingered. The next time out the Griffs were shallacked, 14-2, at conference power Siena. Now they were in must-win territory. Lose one of their final two and there would be no MAAC Tournament, no contribution to the legacy.

"From there we kind of all figured it out amongst each other and just said, 'Where do we want to take this thing?,' " Maderer said. "We can fold or we can start fighting."

Lineup changes were made, some brought on by injury. Freshman Adam Donner emerged as the third close defender. Sophomore Kevin Collins (Orchard Park) became a force at longstick midfield.

"He's probably going to be the best longstick midfield in our conference next year," Mearns said. "This kid's legit. But we didn't know that in September. Just through necessity we started shuffling and it was 'wow, look at our team.' "

Two-goal victories over VMI and Marist gave Canisius the No. 3 seed in the four-team playoffs. The semifinals brought a 12-10 victory over a Detroit team it had lost to, 17-12, in the regular season. Next up, Siena, which had won 27 of its last 28 regular-season conference games. Down, 9-6, at the half, Canisius won, 10-9, on freshman Tim Edwards's second goal of the game with 1:46 remaining.

"It was truly a roller-coaster of emotions for us," Maderer said. "We took care of business versus VMI and everything else kind of fell into place. When it came to Marist we knew exactly what we had to do. We didn't have to count on anyone else and the rest is history."

"We only played 11 games in the regular season but toward the end of the season, all the hiccups and mistakes from the beginning of the season, that started to change," Haney said. "VMI, we started playing really well together and that's when we thought, we really got a chance here. I think that's what everyone started to believe."

Today they get a chance to slay a dragon on national TV. Who knows? Two Griffs, attackmen Simon Giourmetakis of Edmonton, Alberta, and Travis Gibbons of Owen Sound, Ont., are probable NLL draft picks. They've won four straight for the first time since the last time Canisius went to the NCAAs, in 2008. But no matter what the result, they'll look back on this season with a sense of accomplishment.

"I think it's huge for our program," Mearns said. "I think it's huge for our guys from a recruitment standpoint. It's one of those things every four years you want your players to experience getting to the conference championships, getting to the NCAA Championships. It'll continue to help us with recruiting and I think it's great for our guys to play on a big stage."

email: bdicesare@buffnews.com