Just as expected, they drank champagne in the Johns Hopkins locker room after the final game of the NCAA lacrosse championship last weekend, but not in celebration. They were trying to drown their sorrows. For earlier, while the champagne chilled indoors, the Blue Jays had been iced outdoors. They lost 13-12—which was bad enough—but worse, they lost to a University of Virginia team that many Marylanders felt should not have been selected for the tournament in the first place.
In the adjacent dressing room the Virginia players, who had not anticipated the necessity of stocking up on champagne, cooled off with Coke, Gatorade and Nutrament, saving their big thirst for the beer party 27-year-old Coach Glenn Thiel was hastily organizing back at their motel a mile or so from the University of Maryland's Byrd Stadium.
The game was a contest between Hopkins' earnest young men, led by the over-40 Bob Scott, whose rawboned face, clipped hair and lean, sinewy physique suggest all the frivolity of the Army Ranger he once was, and Virginia's older, looser and somewhat jaded gentlemen under the young Thiel. Hopkins has won or shared six national championships since Scott took over as a 24-year-old head coach in 1955, but the 1971 season had hardly been a vintage year—the Blue Jays lost seven of 10 games—and 1972, it was thought, would be only a bit headier since Scott was fielding a team comprised largely of sophomores, albeit very good sophomores who were 16-0 as freshmen. The outlook was so bleak that Scott could fearlessly pledge at the start of the season to grow a Fu Manchu mustache down to his knees if his learn won the NCAA title.
Perhaps because many of his players were so young, Scott let a few of them get ahead of him in the mustache department. Hair, too. For the first time some Blue Jays wore their locks over their ears. However, the cool, balanced style of the fast-developing Hopkins team was typified by the appearance of high-scoring sophomore Attackman Jack Thomas, whose haircut would be considered short in today's modern Army and whose face is clean-shaven, possibly never-shaven. With Thomas and classmate Bill Nolan leading the offense, Hopkins grew to unexpected, instant maturity. The team won 11 games and avenged its only loss of the year by defeating Maryland 9-6 in the national semifinals. The tournament finale promised to be little more than a necessary annoyance. After all, Hopkins had defeated the Cavaliers 13-8 during the regular season.
That loss was the first of three to collegiate opponents suffered by Virginia, which was the team some initially felt would be the national titleholder. The Cavaliers entered last year's tournament undefeated but inexplicably lost to Navy in the first round. They were back in 1972 almost intact, gunning for what seemed rightfully theirs.
The reason given most often for Virginia's spotty record was its inexperienced defense, but Midfielder Pete El-dredge, who set a school record with 36 goals, thought there was a deeper one. "I think we were all just plain getting tired of practicing hard all the time," he said. "Most of the guys on this team are juniors and seniors and we've been doing the same old stuff for three or four years. I don't think we felt a challenge anymore. But the NCAAs are different."
"We're the first team to really understand about the NCAA tournament," added Attackman Jay Connor. "People have got to realize it's just like basketball now. All anyone will remember is how you do in the tournament and that's what the people in Baltimore don't understand yet. They're still living in the old days when some newspaper picked the champion."
The wised-up Cavaliers went to work quickly in the NCAAs, clobbering Army and Cortland (N.Y.) State, while managing to cling to their life-style. As Thiel said, "I want the kids to look and be the way they want. I want a bunch of real college kids, not a team of crew-cuts."
Thiel had what he wanted. His team drove into town in all manner of dinged-up Pintos, aging Chevy IIs, faded Falcons and a 10-year-old Dart with a bad list to the right and more rust than paint. One group rolled up in a boss white Buick convertible, class of the mid-'60s, with no hubcaps. The boys were all spruced up in their worst patched jeans and with them were well-shaped passengers who introduced themselves simply as The Groupies.
Although Thiel denies it, his players say their midseason losses brought some alumni pressure on the young coach. Undoubtedly the grads did not understand how Thiel expected to win with guys who looked like Abbie Hoffman. Their suspicions seemed confirmed in the opening 1:19 of the championship game when Hopkins took two face-offs, fired two shots and scored two goals. Virginia, however, stirred ebbing hopes when it countered with three quick goals on its first three shots—two of them unassisted efforts by Eldredge—and the game settled into a tightly played but relatively penalty-free battle. Twice Hopkins led by two goals and on two other occasions the Cavaliers opened three-point margins. With the score tied 12-12, Eldredge popped in another unassisted goal—his fourth of the day—with 4:11 left to play. Running to his left, he edged a half step ahead of Hopkins' Harry Stringer as they passed eight yards from the goal mouth. Eldredge used the daylight to Hip a hard, precise shot into the upper right corner of the net.
Virginia won largely because it produced the type of effort it showed little enthusiasm for at midseason. Hopkins realized going into the game that it could not allow a shootout between the teams to develop because of Virginia's greater firepower. That meant controlling face-offs and ground balls to limit Cavalier shooting opportunities. The Blue Jays did win one more face-off than Virginia, but the Cavaliers picked up 10 more ground balls. Like blocking in football and rebounding in basketball, clearing grounders in lacrosse is more a matter of tenacity than skill. Virginia was a bulldog, particularly when Attackman Tom Duquette, using a Hopkins tactic the Cavaliers had criticized earlier, stalled with the ball for a minute or more. Three times when the Blue Jay defense came out to challenge him, Duquette passed the ball into newly opened gaps around the crease and his teammates shot for easy scores.
Meanwhile, Hopkins' best shooter, Thomas, who finished the year with 34 goals, was having to work for his scores. Three weeks ago Thomas suffered a partially collapsed lung, but before the championship game he diplomatically claimed his health was back to normal. By the time Boo Smith, a member of Virginia's maligned defense, was finished with him, he was gasping all over again. Thomas scored two goals, one by tipping in a loose ground ball in front of the Virginia net and another on a cramped, difficult shot fired from ear level with Smith covering him closely. On only one occasion did Thomas break free of Smith and launch one of his favorite hard underhand shots. It was smothered neatly by freshman Goalie Rodney Rullman, another member of the Cavalier defense who has been criticized for his play on occasion.
"We made a deal before the game," Smith said. "I told Rodney that if he'd give me one good save on Thomas, then I'd promise to stay on him tight the rest of the time. I knew he had to get away from me sometime and I'm glad Rullman lived up to his side of the bargain."
It turned out that Johns Hopkins this day would not get the good end of any bargain. After many of the Blue Jays had left the stadium, there were Virginia's uninhibited Cavaliers clustered outside the locker room, swigging down leftover champagne. The losers had not found it all that bubbly.