From the beginning the Establishment had to be a bit jittery over the first NCAA lacrosse championship tournament, which was completed last week. The whole idea of playing for the title smacked of unorthodoxy. For 34 years the coaches elected a champion. Then there was the matter of the site. The finals were held not in the environs of Johns Hopkins, Army, Navy or the University of Maryland, the hallowed Big Four that in the past inevitably produced the winner, but out at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. True, Long Islanders had shown a startling aptitude for the game in recent years, but they still could not tell a crab cake from a hush puppy, and, besides, the old sod at Hofstra had been replaced with AstroTurf.
When the eight-team field for the three-week, single-elimination tournament was named, the Establishment received perhaps its biggest shock. Missing was Hopkins, which had won 11 of those 34 mythical titles. The absence of the Bluejays, who lost six games this year, made the tournament something less than up-to-snuff for the Establishment, rather like a season at the hunt with no foxes. Still, the old-school sorts could cheer for their other favorites, the service academies and Maryland. Cheer, that is, until Navy and Army were eliminated in the semifinals.
That left the Terps to go against—and here is where the Establishment really must have cringed—Cornell. Last year Cornell dared to object when three teams, each of whom had lost a game, were chosen tri-champs while the Big Red, which had not lost at all, went unconsidered. “You did not play any of our teams,” was the Establishment line. “%$#”&)*+!” was the Cornell reply. The Big Red finished that sentence at Hofstra last week, proving just how brash upstarts can be, by rudely defeating Maryland 12-6.
“People in Baltimore are brainwashed,” said Cornell Coach Richie Moran, a little round man whose face is all Irish and whose soul is blarney and Bilko in equal measures. “Nobody there knows how good our lacrosse is. They need to be enlightened. We’ve been trying to schedule them for years, but they say they’re booked solid. Sure—that’s why Army picked up Hobart this year. And Navy’s got a joke compared to our schedule.
“Look at it this way: last year we were No. 1 in offense and defense and we were still a bridesmaid. Cornell has been 55-4 over the last five years and never ranked higher than third.” All this was before the tournament began.
Moran provided the enlightenment he promised with a team that is geographically more diverse and far less experienced than championship clubs usually are. Both the Cornell and Maryland rosters were made up largely of players raised in Maryland or Long Island, where the high school lacrosse is the best. There were more Long Islanders (20) on the two teams than Marylanders (19), and surprisingly, the Terrapins, with 12, had most of them. Cornell has also drawn heavily from the game’s newest breeding ground, upstate New York. All three of the Big Red‘s top scorers are from towns north of the school’s location in Ithaca. Before coming to Cornell both Al Rimmer, from Toronto, and Frank Davis, a Tuscarora Indian who was raised on a reservation near Buffalo, had participated only in box lacrosse, the indoor game favored by Canadians and Iroquois that is played during the summer on defrosted hockey rinks. Tri-captain Bob Shaw lives in La-Fayette, N.Y. where Onondagas and Oneidas comprise half the high school enrollment. Five of the six midfielders on Shaw‘s prep team are now captains of college squads.
Cornell’s roster also included 12 athletes who had never played lacrosse before they arrived in Ithaca, a compliment to Moran‘s coaching, which is at once brusque and buoyant. “He’s Irish,” says Goalie Bob Rule, explaining Moran‘s technique. During practices Moran shifts willy-nilly from soft-spoken sermons on positive thinking to a bullhorn voice that threatens to ignite the turf. “It’s not a swearing kind of yelling,” says Rimmer. “It makes you think. I’ve never gone into a game tight. He gets you way up and then loosens you with humor.”
Few teams have ever looked better prepared to play their game than Cornell did against Maryland. Rule was injured earlier in the tournament, and his replacement, Bob Buhmann, played poorly the previous week in the Big Red‘s 17-16 win over Army. But against Maryland, Buhmann made 22 saves, including stops on six shots fired from point-blank range. The Big Red defense of Bill Ellis, Russ Greene and John Burnap checked Maryland high scorers Tom Cleaver and John Kaestner. Averaging a combined six goals and three assists per game this year, they were held to two goals and one assist on Saturday.
Three different Terp defenders tried to halt Rimmer and none succeeded. He pumped in six goals, all from his favorite spot about 15 feet out and slightly to the left of the goal. His second score, with 11:39 gone in the first period, turned control of the game over to Cornell by opening a 4-2 lead. Rimmer spun from behind the goal, retained control of the ball despite a rugged stick check by Maryland‘s Rich Bautz, posted his man and fired a score past the hip of Goalie Bill Reilly. “They were overplaying me way to my right,” Rimmer explained. “It’s like in basketball when they think a man can only go one way. Well, I just brought them out and turned back on them. It let me get inside the man guarding me and then all I had to do was spin around quickly and take my normal shot.”
Maryland‘s only strong drive of the game came early in the fourth quarter when the Terps closed the score to 10-6 with two goals in five minutes. But again it was Rimmer who regained control for Cornell. With the Terps clamping a tight ride on the Big Red defensemen and middies, Burnap tossed a risky but accurate 50-yard clearing pass to Rimmer. The Cornell attackman dashed to his spot and gunned in his final goal just as Maryland‘s Ira Hochstadt belted him to the AstroTurf.
For the next five minutes Cornell went into a stall that left Maryland gasping. With Rimmer, Davis, Shaw and Attackman Glen Mueller passing and dodging almost flawlessly, the Terps were able to gain possession of the ball only once, and then briefly before Shaw put in Cornell’s last goal.
After the game, while his team hoisted the trophy they had earned through playing, not politics, Moran was interviewed solemnly for a Baltimore TV station by a man dressed in a Hopkins blazer, and a non-Establishment fan climbed out of the bleachers with a huge stack of bumper stickers reading: NATIONAL CHAMPION CORNELL LACROSSE. As the microphone was taken away, Moran yelled, “Do you think we showed Baltimore something? Do you think they’ll rank us as high as third?” For once it did not matter.