The University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins played another of those run-of-the-mill NCAA lacrosse championships last week in Philadelphia. There was the usual ho-hum stuff: a little overtime here, a couple of last-half come-from-behinds there. Also, a few touches of high strategy and a hundred or so low body checks. One crucial goal was scored when the shooter was not even looking at the net; another crucial goal was missed even though the shot was on target and the goalie was otherwise occupied a full 15 yards from his crease. In the end, Maryland won 10-9 when freshman Midfielder Frank Urso caromed a long shot off the back of a Hopkins defenseman and past the screened-out Blue Jay goaltender—an old-hat squeaker as far as title games go.
NCAA lacrosse championships are only three years old, but already they are one of the dandier events in sports. This year it seemed improbable that the championship game would be tight, despite Hopkins having another of its traditionally lopsided records: 11 victories and only one defeat. But Maryland came in at 11-0 (13-1 if an early season tournament is counted) and the Terrapins had been overpowering. In their 11 regular-season games they had averaged 17.6 points and held opponents to 5.5. They had trounced Hopkins 17-4 and destroyed the other members of lacrosse’s so-called Big Five: Army, Navy and Virginia. Even before Maryland won its title, enthusiasts were hailing it as the UCLA of the sport—that being today’s clich�.
The Terrapins‘ greatest strength is that they lack one. Eight Maryland players were among the 22 members of the Sun-papers All-America team announced last week: including the goaltender, two defensemen, four midfielders and an attackman. The team’s balance is evident at all positions. On defense, senior Mike Thearle is considered the best in the country. In consecutive games late in the season he held Hopkins’ Jack Thomas and Brown’s Steve Russo, two of the nation’s highest scorers, to a combined total of one goal and no assists. Meanwhile, Rich Avena, who plays crease defense, went relatively unnoticed although no crease attack man had scored on him this year until the semifinal playoff game with Washington & Lee.
Even good lacrosse teams traditionally have only one or two offensive players who accumulate large totals of goals and assists. This year Hopkins, for example, had Thomas with 72 points; its next highest scorer was a big freshman attack man, Franz Wittelsberger, with 39. But Maryland had four players with 48 or more points, led by Attackman Pat O’Meally’s 66. Coaches like to talk about balanced attacks; this season Coach Buddy Beardmore could say it and mean it.
Beardmore’s Terrapins run a high-gear fast-break offense to take advantage of both their depth and speed at midfield and also the excellence of their face-off men. The lacrosse face-off, in which two opponents crouch glowering at each other while the ball rests between the heads of their sticks, must be one of the more obscure athletic arts. The two face-off specialists on this year’s All-America team, Doug Radebaugh and Gary Besosa, are both from Maryland. Against Washington & Lee they combined to win 24 of 29 face-offs with a variety of moves called the flip, rake, clamp and rake-and-clamp. Twenty-one times this season Maryland scored a goal, won the ensuing face-off and scored again within 15 seconds, instilling in their opponents the feeling that they were playing the Boston Celtics. In the only game Maryland lost, face-offs had been eliminated as an experiment.
To prepare for the title game, Beardmore twice loaded his players on buses last week and hauled them to northern Virginia where they worked out on the Washington Redskins” AstroTurf practice field, a surface identical to the one at Franklin Field where the final game would be played. While miscellaneous Skins at preseason workouts yelled, “Hey, man, you guys oughta get your tennis rackets fixed,” and, “Is this a contact sport?” Beardmore consulted with George Allen to discuss proper footwear. The Terrapins had lost the championship to Cornell on AstroTurf two years before and had not played on it since, while Hopkins had held a practice, scrimmaged and played a game on artificial fields in recent weeks. On Allen‘s advice, Beardmore ordered Japanese-made ripple-soled shoes for his players. Almost as soon as Maryland began working out, the soles fell off. A few phone calls later the same company came up with the jazzy red basketball shoes that Maryland wore for the game.
After the Terrapins arrived in Philadelphia, Beardmore made one more preparatory move. The night before the game he called a team meeting, presented his players with several cases of beer and told them to relax. That suited perfectly the regimen of the one Maryland player whose performance this season transformed a potentially excellent team into an extraordinary one: soph Goalie Bill O’Donnell. His was the position at which Maryland was neither deep nor experienced when the season began. By the finals, he had become the second best goalie in college, behind Hopkins’ superb Les Matthews.
O’Donnell is unusually big for a goalie, in several different directions. He stands 6’2″, an advantage when one must guard a 6′ cage. He can use his head as well as his stick and hands to bat away the shots to the upper corners of the goal that the best shooters often take. He weighs 220 pounds, more than a few of them hanging around his midsection like an unbelted radial. His girth, which helps him stop up portions of the cage the way a cork seals the mouth of a bottle, is compounded of equal parts food and beer.
O’Donnell, who weighed 248 at Christmas and trimmed down to 210 to start the season, was no stranger to the goal when he became Maryland‘s starter. “I began playing lacrosse in the fifth grade in Baltimore,” he says. “I was a defenseman for my first few years, but in the eighth grade I told the coach I wanted to try goal. Basically I’m lazy, but I ain’t dumb. I had it all figured out that goalies don’t have to run very much.”
With a fat and happy young goalie to go with all that other talent, plus their earlier lopsided victory, Maryland was logically a clear favorite over Hopkins in the title game. But the Blue Jays had no inclination to be pushovers. The loss to the Terrapins had been the worst of Coach Bob Scott‘s 19-year career. “They obliterated us. They pulverized us in every area, the fast break, face-offs, riding, clearing, goaltending, everything,” Scott said after his team’s final practice. “I think we might have to be a bit more deliberate this time.”
“All we can do is control the tempo of the game more,” said Goalie Matthews a little later, sipping soda with his teammates. “It’s important for us not to get three or four goals behind.”
“That’s right, they get a little lead and they start to taste it. That’s when they really get going,” added All-America Defenseman Jim Ferguson.
“We’re gonna play a slowdown,” concluded Matthews.
Maryland expected Hopkins to stall. Against Virginia in a game last year, the Blue Jays had frozen the ball for long periods. The tactics stirred controversy among lacrosse officials, who see their game beginning to gain popularity and are afraid the stall might turn off potential fans. There had even been some discussion of introducing a shot clock similar to pro basketball’s.
What did surprise the Terrapins, who had figured to see a slowdown only if Hopkins took a lead, was the timing of the Blue Jays’ stall. Ron Hall won the opening face-off from Besosa, Hopkins cleared into its offensive zone and then held onto the ball for almost 11 minutes. During that time the Blue Jays took two shots, recovering the ball easily after each. The freeze drew hearty boos from the Maryland fans, who comprised roughly half the crowd of 7,117.
But the tactic worked precisely as Scott had hoped. It forced Maryland into a pressing, double-teaming defense, against which Hopkins’ one clear edge—the fine stickwork and passing of such players as Thomas and Rick Kowalchuk—could be used to get the ball to shooters left uncovered. Although Hopkins did not again employ a full freeze, it retained enough patience on offense throughout the game to keep Maryland in its most aggressive defense.
The Terrapins, meanwhile, were showing signs of pressure during their rare offensive opportunities. They took only one shot in the first period. Throughout the opening half, their passing was erratic and their shots often inappropriate. Two-thirds of the way through the second quarter, Hopkins had a 5-1 lead. A Maryland goal six seconds before the half cut the lead to 5-2.
During the half Maryland made some subtle adjustments on defense and a big change on offense, switching to a slower pattern, too. From the press box, Scout Craig Hubbard had spotted several Hopkins players he considered incapable of keeping up with certain Maryland players, particularly Schreiber and the hard-shooting Urso. In the second half the Terrapins set up patiently on offense, passing the ball back and forth until Hubbard could call down and tell the coaches on the field who had the advantageous matchup.
With Radebaugh and Besosa winning the face-offs and their teammates taking shots with a little help from above, Maryland scored the first four goals in a 3�-minute span of the third period to take a 6-5 lead. The sixth came on the first of three scoring dashes down the middle by Urso.
Then Hopkins, taking advantage of penalties, replied with three straight goals to lead 8-6. The Terrapins cut the margin to one on a blind, over-the-shoulder heave by O’Meally as he cut in front of the crease guarded by Ferguson. Again Hopkins opened up a two-goal edge before first Urso and then Schreiber made rushes through the middle to tie the score.
Throughout the fourth period and into overtime, the goaltending on both sides was extraordinary, particularly by Matthews, who stopped nine Maryland shots in the last quarter, many of them from point-blank range. But the best save of the day was one that Bill O’Donnell did not make for Maryland. At 3:50 of the first overtime, he scrambled out against Hopkins’ Thomas for a missed shot behind his goal. Just as the ball was about to bounce out of bounds, Thomas grabbed it and tossed it blindly over his head. Midfielder Dale Kohler caught the ball in front of the goal and fired a shot at what would have been an open Maryland net if Ed Glatzel had not alertly stepped into the crease. “We have a deal where the defenseman away from the ball is supposed to cover the crease whenever the goalie leaves,” Glatzel explained. “I’ve had a few saves on plays like that this year, but that’s the first one on which I ever really saw the ball. This one came right at me and I was able to knock it away.”
All that remained then was for Urso to score the winning goal at 1:18 of the second overtime. It was a 15-yarder—a long shot under such critical circumstances—but in maneuvering, Urso discovered that he could not see Matthews. “I figured if I couldn’t see him, then he couldn’t see me, and I let it go.”
The ball deflected off the back of Hopkins’ Bob Barbera into the goal and that decided one more ho-hum championship.