Defending champions always have a big target on their backs during their arduous journey to attempt a repeat, and Loyola Blakefield’s quest to knock off McDonogh on Friday afternoon at Hargaden Field was no exception.

Both teams came into the match undefeated in the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference, so something had to give.

However, no one could have expected what eventually transpired on a hazy and pleasant day in Towson.

”I think coach (Andy) Hilgartner will feel like they didn’t lose it, they just ran out of time,” Loyola coach Gene Ubriaco said about his McDonogh counterpart. “My team has been in a lot of situations, and when you have that experience to draw on, it’s helpful. I think everyone who was at this game, will remember being at this game.”

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

In arguably one of the best regular season matches in recent years in the nation’s premier boys lacrosse league, the third-ranked Dons defeated the reigning champs and No. 1 Eagles, 14-13. Junior attack Mason Cook had 3 goals and an assist for Loyola, and Matt Burham added 2 scores and 3 assists.

Loyola's Ty Bleach (27) beats McDonogh goalie Teddy Scarborough for a fast goal in the first half Friday. The No. 3 Dons built an 11-2 third quarter advantage before needing a goal in the fourth quarter to repel a furious Eagle rally for a 14-13 decision. (Paul Newson/The Baltimore Banner)

Burham’s goal with 3 minutes, 54 seconds left in regulation and goalie Bennett Wright’s stop in the waning seconds were the difference for the Dons (7-2 overall), who’re now the only undefeated squad in the MIAA A (4-0).

They did it the hard way, relinquishing a seemingly insurmountable 9-goal second half advantage before rebounding in the closing minutes to gain their first victory over McDonogh since 2019.

The Eagles (9-1, 3-1 MIAA A), ranked No. 2 nationally by Inside Lacrosse, had won their previous 14 decisions, dating back to last spring’s run to the MIAA A crown as the No. 5 seed.

“Hats off to Loyola. They played an awesome game. I am happy for my good friend, Coach ‘U.’ They earned it, and outplayed us for sure,” said Hilgartner. “Just the fact that we made the comeback and got it to 13-13 after being down 11-2 in the third period will benefit us down the road, one way or another.”

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

McDonogh did the improbable, outscoring the Dons, 11-2, in less than a quarter’s time, as Brendan Millon netted the equalizer on a nice feed from Luke Miller with 6:24 left in regulation.

Loyola showed its poise as Burnham, whose shot was stopped by Eagle backup goalie Aiden Seibel, got the loose ball in front of the goal and put it back into the net.

“Mason Cook threw the ball to me – we have good chemistry — and I tipped it and it hit the goalie and then I saw it on the ground, just picked it up, and put it in,” Burnam said.

Seibel (5 saves) denied Owen Dixon with 1:16 left to play. McDonogh called timeout with 1:04 remaning.

With about 10 seconds left, McCabe Millon fired a low shot that Wright (7 saves) deflected and the Dons regained possession with a couple of seconds remaining. Loyola threw a high and deep inbound pass to the other end to run out the clock and set off a celebration.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

It didn’t start that way as McCabe Millon (3 goals and 2 assists), the nation’s No. 1 senior bound to the University of Virginia, started the day with a nice unassisted goal within the opening minute. But Loyola responded with fury, scoring six unanswered goals, frustrating the McDonogh defense.

After one period the Dons were in control, 6-2. The Loyola defensive unit of Liam Powell, Thomas Lala and Peter Laake continued its tenacity in the second quarter by refusing to give up a single goal while the offense did its part, too.

With less than a minute to go before intermission, Jack Gunning and Ty Bleach (2 goals) each scored goals, and to the surprise of the big crowd, Loyola’s lead bulged to 10-2 at the break.

The Dons’ first-half success was in part due to the face-off unit, which neutralized McDonogh’s formidable face-off middie, Zach Hayashi, by claiming 8-of-14 draws.

Facing one of its largest halftime deficits in several years, McDonogh stayed resolute.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

”We’ve got a great senior group, tons of heart and character on the team,” Hilgartner said.

McDonogh put Seibel in goal to start the second half and began to slowly creep back into the game. The Eagles gained even more momentum when Miller (2 goals and 4 assists) and Brendan Millon (4 goals) both scored in the final seconds of the third period, with the latter’s tally coming with just four seconds left on the clock.

McDonogh also started winning face-offs, including all six in the third period.

Although the Eagles still trailed by six goals, Hayashi started to regain his usual competence at the ‘X,’ scooping up possession after possession as the Eagles’ rally rolled on.

“It took me a while to get going, and once we got into a good rhythm we were giving our offense the ball, and we saw them fight back,” Hayashi said after claiming 14-of-16 draws in the second half.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

McDonogh scored three unanswered goals to open the final period, cutting the Dons’ lead to 12-9 before Cook responded with his third goal of the game at the 8:31 mark of the period.

Undeterred, McDonogh went on a 4-0 run, including two goals by freshman Hunter Metz, to tie the game at 13.

But the Dons were undeterred as well, putting themselves into position for a MIAA A postseason berth after failing to qualify in 2022.

Bennett Wright (left) and Matt Burham came up big for Loyola in the final minutes Friday. Burham scored the lead goal with 3 minutes, 54 seconds left and Wright stopped a McDonogh shot with about 10 seconds to play as the No. 3 Dons defeated the top-ranked Eagles at Hargaden Field in Towson. (Derek Toney)

“This game is more a testament to our league,” said Ubriaco, who’s stepping down at season’s end. “We are sitting there at halftime, 10-2, and I told my coaches it’s going to take 13 goals to win this game, and I was off by one.”

NO. 3 LOYOLA BLAKEFIELD 14, NO. 1 MCDONOGH 13

McDonogh 2 0 4 7 - 13

Loyola 6 4 2 2 - 14

Goals: McDonogh – McCabe Millon 3, Luke Miller 2, Brendan Millon 4, Andrew Kasten, Hunter Metz 2, James Tolker; Loyola – Owen Dixon 2, Luke Rush 2, Mason Cook 3, Matt Burnam 2, Ty Bleach 2, Shane Elliott, Jack Gunning, Jack Doran

Assists: McDonogh – Tre Moore, Mac Christmas, McCabe Millon 2, Brendan Millon, Luke Miller 4; Loyola – Matt Burnam 3, Shane Elliott 3, Mason Cook, Luke Rush, Jack Gunning

Saves: McDonogh – Teddy Scarborough 4, Aidan Seibel 5; Loyola – Bennett Wright 7