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Thursday, June 03, 2004

SI Discovers Lacrosse, Joins the Bandwagon

SI's recent scorecard item about the national championship game in lacrosse was saccharine enough in spots to give you cavities. The SI item talked about lacrosse as a fast-growing sport, how popular the championship game was and how the Syracuse-Navy championship game was the most exciting championship game in the past 15 years. I'll agree somewhat with the first notion (it is a fast-growing sport, but with budget cuts and Title IX issues, you wonder how fast it can grow), I'll definitely agree with the second notion (the numbers don't lie -- over 43,000 fans in the rain in Baltimore on Memorial Day), but I'll take issue with the third comment. I'll take issue even though the Naval Academy was in the championship game, and, apparently, that famous Wesleyan alum and math major to boot, Bill Bellichik, whose dad was an assistant football coach at Navy, gave a motivational talk to the Navy squad before they beat Princeton 8-7 in their semifinal game on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend.

Last Saturday's national championship game was the first time Navy appeared in the final game since 1975, and it was a very good game. But I think to say it was the best championship game in the past 15 years is a reach. First, there have been many excellent games. Second, the 1992 game was a watershed game for contemporary lacrosse, and that game, to me, was the best game in the past 15 years.

In 1992, there were three dominant programs in men's lacrosse. So dominant, in fact, that dating back to the mid-1970's (when Cornell won a title), only these three programs won national titles -- Johns Hopkins, Syracuse and North Carolina (the latter somewhat of an upstart itself, coached by a former Hopkins assistant whose name I hope I spell right, Willlie Scroggs). Those three had a stranglehold on the title.

Until Princeton came along. Bill Tierney took the Princeton job a few years earlier, having been a Hopkins assistant himself, and the year before took the Tigers to their first NCAA playoff game probably in decades. The Tigers won their semifinal game on a blisteringly hot Saturday of Memorial Day weekend on the astroturf of Penn's Franklin Field, only to have to face prohibitive favorite Syracuse in the finals on Memorial Day.

As hot as it was on the day of the semifinals, in the 90s with humidity at least 85%, it was raw on Memorial Day. High 50's, low 60's, with a pronounced drizzle. The Tigers stormed out, controlled the tempo, and were shutting out Syracuse with a few minutes to go in the first half (the Orange managed a goal). The Tigers at one point led by either 8-1 or 9-1 (my memory fails me a bit), and Syracuse, showing its prowess, managed to tie the game late in regulation. At the beginning of the second overtime, the Tigers won the faceoff, and Andy Moe burst downfield, gathered a head of steam and fired a rocket past the Syracuse goalie for an improbable victory and the national championship. Since then, the Tigers have won five additional national championships.

Why was this game a watershed? Because a school that had mixed results for decades had turned it around? Maybe. Because the stranglehold of Hopkins, Syracuse and Carolina was broken? Absolutely.

Now, Division I lacrosse is more of a free-for-all. Syracuse is the preeminent program, as it's hard to argue with their success. But Hopkins, Princeton, Maryland, Duke (which had an off year), Virginia (which had an off year, and, frankly, an awful year for a perennial power), Georgetown, Cornell, Loyola, Navy and many others have outstanding programs. SI is right, lacrosse is growing in popularity, and it has to thank the '92 championship game for that.


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