It would be easy to assume that Navy’s lacrosse team, which plays like it is almost perfect, is an athletic embodiment of the perfectly regimented and perfectly drilled Naval Academy Midshipmen. Forget it. Last Saturday Navy won its seventh straight national lacrosse championship by defeating Army 16-7, and it did it just the way it has since 1960—by being irreverent, by being boys at play, by being Willis P. Bilderback and His Merrie Men.
Navy won with an overpowering display of strength, depth and tactics, and could hardly have looked more natural doing it. “This just isn’t a normal Academy athletic team,” says Navy’s captain, Owen McFadden. “There is something different about playing lacrosse for Navy.” There certainly seems to be.
When Wayne Hardin’s Navy football teams used to play Army, he would drive the Cadets to distraction with slogans on helmets or other such gimmicks. The lacrosse Midshipmen were up to their own brand of that kind of thing last week as they came to West Point with a national championship at stake. All of them wore Ugly Stickers on their helmets. Ugly Stickers, pictures of terrible monsters, are a whole lot more camp than Wayne Hardin‘s ideas, being obtained for 5 in a bubble-gum pack. And what this country needs is a good 5 Ugly Sticker.
None of this is to suggest that the Navy lacrosse players are some kind of undisciplined crew of athletic bums. It is just that there is more of Mr. Roberts than Horatio Hornblower in them. They are good students and neat, but also very dedicated athletes. Attackman Jimmy Lewis (SI, May 30), who may be the best lacrosse player of this era, was so keyed up about the Army game that he did not even bother to check his grades. “If I fail anything, they’ll let me know,” Lewis said.
The personality of this unusual team can be credited in large part to its coach, Bill Bilderback, and his assistants. The dual Navy lacrosse traditions of winning and laughing both stem from Bilderback. A little, unassuming man, his baggy pants are forever slung too low, enveloping his shoes as he shuffles up and down the sidelines. Yet, with the abdication of Red Auerbach of the Boston Celtics, Bilderback‘s seven straight championships is the current record in major athletics. Bilderback did not get a chance to become a head coach until he was 49. Now, at 57, he is the most successful one around. “Bildy’s the only guy I know who’s nice and a winner, too,” Navy Midfielder Howie Crisp said one day.
But Bilderback‘s congeniality is merely a front for his diligence. Scouting Army early this season, he caught pneumonia. He retreated to bed with a high temperature immediately after Navy beat Johns Hopkins, but was up watching game movies a few hours later.
Bilderback has a whole phalanx of assistants who help him with everything, including morale. The senior two of them, Lou (Buster) Phipps and Tommy Dorsey, set the pace for things on the way up to West Point. To loosen up the players at a Howard Johnson‘s stopover, Phipps and Dorsey exploded firecrackers and burned capsules that turn into foul-smelling “snakes.” They also loosened up the other customers. Phipps then donned a Batman helmet, and the team continued north.
The Midshipmen went into Saturday’s game with only a 12-11 loss to the Mount Washington Lacrosse Club marring their record. When Army later beat Mount Washington, hopes were raised that Navy could be upset by Army. Certainly, no one expected the rout that ensued. “It did not even seem like an Army-Navy game,” Lewis said later. “It was so easy.”
The Navy attack, headed by Lewis and McFadden, is one of the strongest in years, and Army decided to gear its defensive game to stopping it. To do so, Coach Jim (Ace) Adams had his defense pick up and pressure the Navy attack-men far out from the goal. Lewis particularly was subject to tight guarding, practically from midfield. By spreading the Navy attack, however, Army also spread its defense through the middle, which any general knows is dangerous.
Jimmy Lewis set the pattern for the game within the first three minutes. Navy was short a man because of a penalty, and Lewis was trying to freeze the ball. Nonetheless, Army double-teamed him. Lewis saw Midfielder Phil Norton breaking free through the middle some 30 yards away. He hit Norton with a pass, who in turn fed McFadden for a score. The weakness in the Army middle had been spotted, and Navy took advantage of it. McFadden’s goal was the only one scored by a Navy attackman until well into the third period. Indeed, the attack shot only five times in the first half, while the midfield was making six goals on nine shots. Lewis himself did not even maneuver into shooting position until Navy was leading 11-3. In all, Navy midfielders scored 11 times, led by sophomore John McIntosh with three goals.
It was ironic that the Navy midfield played such a significant role, for it was Army’s first midfield that was rated as the best in the country. Headed by Captain Frank Kobes, a nine-letter man at West Point, it was the element of the Army team that Bilderback feared most. As it was, Navy simply wore out Army’s best. Navy had used five different mid-fields by early in the second half.
“Teams come to scout us,” says the Rev. Mr. James Lewis, a former All-America and now the resident Friar Tuck on Bilderback‘s staff, “and they write down all the names very carefully. Then, when we play them, all of a sudden we’re running in a new bunch from somewhere.” McIntosh is typical of this. He had scored only two goals prior to the Army game.
McIntosh was cutting a huge devil’s food cake in the locker room after the game. Actually, his birthday was the previous week, but, he said: “I was restricted. I was a bad boy. I threw a firecracker into some guy’s room.”
It is tough to beat the Navy at lacrosse. They have Bilderback, they drink beer after devil’s food cake, they throw firecrackers, and they come through your middle with Ugly Stickers.