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Lockdown Loecher keys University of Rochester's historic NCAA Tournament run

There's something special happening an hour down the I-90 East.

The University of Rochester men's soccer team has advanced to the program's first Final Four of the Division III NCAA Tournament, toppling defending champion Messiah College, 2-1, in a rematch of last year's Elite Eight.

Senior center back Luke Loecher, a Lancaster High School alum and a first-team All-University Athletic Association pick in 2018, is an integral member of the Yellowjackets squad that won 16 games for the first time since 2005 and beat Messiah - winners of 11 NCAA titles since 2000 - for the first time ever.

"It's crazy, it didn't feel real at first and hasn't sunk in yet," Loecher said of Rochester's achievement in a phone conversation last week. "It's an amazing feeling, knowing the hard work we put in [in order to] come out with the result."

One particular challenge for Loecher was facing Messiah's leading scorer, Nick West, who entered the Elite Eight match with 29 goals on the season, the most in the country for D-3. The match-up was personal, too, as West had scored twice in knocking out the Yellowjackets the year prior.

"I took pride in shutting him down," Loecher said. "[West] did end up scoring, but I did pretty well in [containing] him."

University of Rochester center back Luke Loecher has had a stellar senior season. (Rochester Athletic Communications)

Four years facing quality UAA forwards hardened Loecher for the challenge, and his head coach was confident in his center back.

"Luke is a great one-vs.-one defender and has matched up against top forwards like Max Lopez (Chicago) and Ryan Sproule (Washington University) all year," added University of Rochester head coach Chris Apple.

"We knew he'd be up for the challenge against the nation's top scorer."

The defender was quick to note Rochester's win was a collective effort in the back, acknowledging how difficult the Falcons are to fluster for 90 minutes.

"Organization and communication were two of the biggest reasons [we won]," he explained. "Messiah moves a lot off the ball, so our back line had to stay connected and communicate as different players interchange. We couldn't take a second off."

The Yellowjackets benefited from a snowstorm that blanketed central Pennsylvania, ruining Messiah's home-field advantage and shifting the match to Rochester with only three days notice.

"[The change] definitely helped us," Loecher admitted. "We found out Thursday night [we] were hosting. It helped knowing we'd play in front of our home fans and wouldn't have to be in a hotel."

Thanks to the changes in scheduling, Rochester has played its last seven matches at home, winning all of them.

Lancaster's Luke Loecher, right, goes hard into a tackle against Williamsville North in September 2012. (Mark Mulville/News file photo)

Back in 2015, Loecher left the Buffalo area as a decorated high school center midfielder, winning ECIC I Player of the Year honors as a senior and a place on the All-Western New York squad. His high school accolades weren't a big shock, though, as he had been named to the All-WNY second team as a junior.

"As any coach of high school-aged players knows, sometimes the consistency of your players seems to go up and down," said Chris Palmer, Loecher's high school coach. "That was never the case with Luke. I knew every time he stepped on the field that he was going to have a huge impact on the game for us.

"The most special thing about Luke, in my opinion, is the tenacity he brings into all things soccer," Palmer added. "There was never a difference between what I saw in training and what I saw in games."

Under Apple, at the helm for U of R for 17 years, Loecher came off the bench as a freshman before seizing the starting role for good in his second season.

"[Luke]'s really developed his decision making, timing and self-confidence," Apple wrote in an email. "As a first-year student he was very athletic, but still pretty raw. The way he's worked so hard on his game these last three years has been outstanding."

Even without wearing the captain's armband, Loecher - pronounced "LOW-sher" - considers himself a leader, but not quite in the traditional sense. "I lead by example, I'll step into challenges no matter what, and that rubs off on the rest of the team."

The local connections to the Rochester side don't end with Loecher, as Ryan Aspenleiter, a senior striker who transferred in after the University at Buffalo men's program folded in April 2017, has scored two goals and added two assists as a reserve forward this season.

The long Thanksgiving break provided Rochester time to recover, with the next step in their quest for national glory coming at 1:45 p.m. Nov. 30 in Greensboro, NC, against Tufts University.

"Belief in one another is a huge reason why we've gone as far as we have," summed Loecher, who was named third-team All-East Region on Tuesday. "I don't think we're the most talented team in the country, but we're not afraid of anyone."

"We feel confident after beating Messiah," he added. "We know we can beat any team in the country. We're hungry for more, to push for a national championship."

Loecher's success - both as an individual and as part of the Yellowjackets' national rise - is still treasured back in Buffalo.

"To my knowledge, Lancaster has never had a former player participating in the Final Four at any collegiate level," said Palmer, who just stepped down from coaching the Legends after 19 years. "Knowing that Luke Loecher is the first doesn't surprise me one bit."

Email: btsujimoto@buffnews.com

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