Supposedly, NCAA tournaments are played to determine which team is the best in the nation, but often they merely confirm the preeminence of a school that clearly had established its superiority during the regular season. Only when rankings have been hopelessly jumbled by upsets and erratic performances does a season-ending tournament serve to unscramble things once and for all. That was the case in lacrosse this year, and last week in Baltimore the University of Maryland, which almost did not qualify for the championships, resoundingly clarified which was the best team in 1975 by defeating an equally surprising Navy squad 20-13.
As always, the tournament succeeded in promoting lacrosse. The crowd at Johns Hopkins' Homewood Field was a standing-room-only 10,400. Yet the championships are not overwhelmingly popular with the lacrosse community, which complains that too much of the money the event generates goes to the NCAA, not to the sport.
Furthermore, the tournament makes a shambles of year-end scheduling. Consider this season's finalists. Maryland's commencement was held on May 11. The school's lacrosse players, who otherwise would have started their summer vacations, had to hang around for three weeks for their season to end. At the Naval Academy, players took exams on the morning before their opening tournament game with Pennsylvania, then could not celebrate their 17-6 victory because they had more exams that evening. The Middies' tests did not end until the day they traveled to Cornell for their 15-12 semifinal upset of the No. 2-ranked Big Red. What's more, the exigencies of Navy's athletic budget require that the annual clash with Army be scheduled for the Academy's June Week, when it will draw a big crowd. That meant that Navy had to play the Cadets the day after the national championship.
Nor does the concept of a national tournament seem to have all that much relevance in lacrosse. In the five years the championships have been played, eight of the 10 finalists have come from Maryland. The University of Maryland has appeared in four of the five finals, and the Midshipmen and the Terps are the only two teams that have been selected for all five tournaments.
Maryland and Navy are also the best examples of how confused the lacrosse picture was this year. The Terps did not even win the Atlantic Coast Conference. The University of Virginia did. For what he calls "the good of the game," Terp Coach Bud Beardmore schedules a number of non-NCAA games. As a result, Maryland played only six NCAA games, the minimum number required to qualify for the tournament. The Terps lost two of them, including one to Navy. On the other hand, the Middies had perhaps the roughest schedule in college lacrosse this season. They played every team that appeared in the 1974 and 1975 championship tournaments. The Middies not only lost two of those games but managed to blow two others against lesser opponents, including their season opener to an unheralded small-college team, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Coaching at the Academy has always been an uphill battle for Dick Szlasa, who has directed Navy's lacrosse program for the past three years. As if the recruiting problems of a service academy were not burden enough, Szlasa had to succeed the legendary Bill Bilderback. In 14 seasons at Navy, Bilderback won nine national championships, including an incredible string of eight in a row from 1960 to 1967 when the title was decided by a vote.
Szlasa managed to get the Middies into the NCAA tournament in each of his first two seasons, but both times they were eliminated in the first round. With 16 of 31 lettermen gone, prospects for 1975 appeared to be bleak. When Navy lost to UMBC in the mud to open the season, it marked the lowest point of his career. "We jumped on the bus after the game and the weight of the players caused it to mire in the mud," Szlasa says, possibly passing the buck, since he tips the scales at about 250. "It took two hours to get unstuck. That whole scene really brought us to grips with reality."
Navy followed with three straight wins, then lost to Cornell 16-7 when a twisted ankle forced starting Goalie Bill Mueller to leave the game with the Middies trailing 4-3. A week later they were upset by Princeton 15-14. That loss dropped Navy to seventh in the national rankings, and it needed four straight victories, including a satisfying 10-9 win against Maryland, to pull itself back into tournament contention.
The triumph over Maryland gave the Middies the confidence they needed to blast their way into the NCAA finals, but it also awoke the Terps, who have not lost since. There is no love lost between the two schools, even though Szlasa, like Beardmore, played lacrosse at Maryland. As Commander Jack Renard, the Middies' officer representative, says, "When I went to the Academy, we wanted to kill Maryland and beat Army." The Terps consider 1924, the year lacrosse became a varsity sport at Maryland, the starting date of the series between the two schools, and proudly boast of their 26-22-1 edge against Navy over the ensuing 50 years. Understandably, the Terps choose not to include five unofficial games played before 1924. They lost all of them by an aggregate score of 76-4.
Maryland also had gotten off to a crippling start this season when All-America Attackman Ed Mullen suffered a knee injury in the Terps' opener and was lost for the year. Starting Defenseman Tom Murray also succumbed to a knee injury. To make matters worse, All-America Midfielder Roger Tuck broke the fifth metatarsal in his left foot and had to compete with a metal plate in his shoe. Beardmore played musical lineups as the Terps dropped three straight to the Mount Washington club, Virginia and Navy.
In the Virginia game, Maryland attempted 27 shots in the fourth quarter, scored just once and lost by a goal. Against Navy the next week, the Terps outshot the Middies 59-38, took 17 of 21 faceoffs and 82 of 123 ground balls, and again lost by one. "Our stick work was atrocious. We looked like a bunch of high school kids," says Beardmore. But he decided to stay with the lineup he had tried against Navy, which included moving Tuck permanently to attack where he would not have to run as much. The Terps finally looked impressive the following week against the Severna Park club. Then with a 74-goal barrage, Maryland bombarded four consecutive opponents—Army, Hopkins, Hofstra and Washington and Lee—to reach the tournament finals.
The Hopkins game closed out the regular season amid reports that Maryland needed a victory to be selected for the NCAA championships. Hopkins was undefeated and ranked No. 1 at the time, but the Terps exploded to an 11-1 first-quarter lead on their way to a 19-11 win. Against Hofstra in the initial round of the NCAAs, they set a tournament record by taking 80 shots in another 19-11 win. Three days later they toyed with Washington and Lee, an upset winner over Hopkins in the opening round, before winning 15-5. "Because of our injuries and inexperience the coach had tried to change us to a more controlled, slowdown style," said Midfielder Doug Radebaugh, one of Maryland's three captains, as he tried to explain the Terps' early-season sluggishness. "Now we've returned to the old run and gun."
With his team back to a more comfortable style of play, Beardmore's problem in the week before the finals was making sure the Terps did not become too relaxed. Last year Maryland, a favorite to beat Hopkins in the tournament finale, was upset 17-12. Beardmore blames himself for taking the Blue Jays too lightly and allowing his team to become overconfident. He worked hard this time to avoid a repeat performance. In 1974 he gave his players two days off the week before the finals and let their conditioning taper off. This season there was only one free day, and Beardmore ran the Terps more than he had in any of the previous six weeks. He even held a workout the morning of the championship game. "The only people who could be overconfident were the ones who weren't here last year," said Midfielder Frank Urso, a two-time All-America who led the team in scoring this year.
The Terps looked hungry in the early going last week, making their first two goals 11 seconds apart and building a 3-0 lead. Then Navy hit four in a row and took the lead. The two teams exchanged goals before Maryland, sparked by two Urso goals within 12 seconds, poured in five straight to move ahead 9-5.
For the last 4:16 of the first half, the entire third quarter and the first 5:30 of the fourth period, the teams traded goals with Navy repeatedly cutting the Terps' lead to three, then falling back by four again. The Midshipmen could only blame themselves for not getting closer. There is no statistic for turnovers in lacrosse, but the Middies had more than their share. Twice Navy high-point man Jeff Long broke in all alone on Maryland Goalie Gary Niels, a converted midfielder, and failed to score. The first time Long tried to get too close to the goal before shooting, giving Maryland Defenseman Mark Bethmann enough time to make a desperate dash from the side and disrupt the shot. On his second breakaway, Long did get too close. He also faked once too often and Niels was able to come out on him and snuff the shot.
Then with the score 13-10, the Middies let a Maryland defenseman score. Mike Farrell, perhaps the best defender in lacrosse this year, scooped up a loose ball and charged into Navy territory as the Middies hastily retreated. "My man kept backing up and finally he gave me a 12-yard shot, so I figured what the heck," said Farrell. His high hard liner whistled over Mueller's shoulder.
With the score 15-11 Maryland finally broke the seesaw pattern. A good stop by Niels, who finished with 17 saves, started a quick play that resulted in a goal by Tuck. A moment later a Middie bounce shot from the side caromed past Niels only to be saved by Farrell, who had been hovering at the far edge of the crease. Maryland cleared the ball, Radebaugh made an unassisted score and the Terps had the six-goal margin that put the game out of reach.
Maryland's 20 goals broke a tournament record, as did its 54 goals for the three-game series. Urso, the hardest shot in college lacrosse, tied a championship game record by scoring five times. He has amassed 42 points in tournament competition in three years. At the end there was no disputing the Terp fans' cheer of "We're No. 1." Runner-up in the ACC, but national champions nonetheless. It was that kind of year.