The two best attacks of this—and perhaps any—collegiate lacrosse season belong to Johns Hopkins and Cornell. Which of the two is better had been a matter of speculation until last week when the guessing was brought to an abrupt end during a game between the schools at Homewood Field in Baltimore. The clear-cut winner was Cornell, which not only displayed a high-scoring offense but also enough defense that it now must be considered the front-runner for the NCAA title.
The two attacks had met once before. That was midway through last season, when Hopkins was ranked No. 1 in the country and Cornell was rated second. In front of 12,000 hometown fans in Ithaca, N.Y., the Big Red suffered a particularly disappointing 16—9 loss. The Hopkins attackmen clearly carried that day, outscoring their Cornell counterparts 12-5. But the Big Red had been awesome in the early going this season, averaging 22 goals a game while running roughshod over all five of its opponents, and last week's match was considered a toss-up.
These two attack units are so strong that the game in Baltimore was almost overshadowed by the preoccupation with them. Three of the six starting attackmen—Cornell's Mike French and Eamon McEneaney and Hopkins' Franz Wittelsberger—made up last season's first-team All-America unit and will undoubtedly repeat this year. French set an NCAA scoring record in 1975 with 97 points, yet it was McEneaney who won the Turnbull Award as the nation's outstanding attackman. And it was Wittelsberger who, many observers fell, should have won the award. The other three starters on attack—the Blue Jays' Mike O'Neill and Richie Hirsch and the Big Red's Jon Levine—were on the second, third and honorable-mention All-America teams, respectively. Although the two coaches, Chic Ciccarone of Hopkins and Richie Moran of Cornell, were cautious in their praise, both acknowledged that these attackmen were very possibly the finest group ever to appear together in a college game.
Among the six, Wittelsberger has gained the most fame—perhaps infamy would be a better way to put it—primarily because he has come to be regarded as the Dave Schultz of his sport. Traditionally, attackmen are slight of build and are bullied by Brobdingnagian defensemen. At 6'2" and 215 pounds, Wittelsberger frequently has turned the tables, and lacrosse traditionalists seem unwilling to accept the fact that turnabout is fair play.
April 25, 1976
Off the field Wittelsberger, a senior, seems too amiable for his reputation. Last season he wore a mustache that he expanded into a beard this fall, but now he is clean-shaven. "All that stuff made me look too old too soon," he says. In truth, a steadily enlarging forehead is adding more years to his appearance than the facial hair had.
Incipient baldness and a sharp razor have failed to convince the lacrosse establishment that Wittelsberger is not some great hairy monster, although his unsavory reputation is founded largely on a matter of interpretation. The rules of lacrosse allow a player to hit an opponent who is within five yards of the ball. Traditionally that has been interpreted to mean that bone-jarring checks are appropriate when the opponent is closing in on the ball, but as Wittelsberger likes to point out, it also means that a bruising hit is perfectly legal when the man and the ball have recently parted company. Thus, he has delivered some memorable blows that have been adjudged "late hits." The most notable of them was planted last year on Virginia's All-America Goalie Rodney Rullman; after that shot, Rullman retired from the game and, to hear Wittelsberger's detractors tell it, very nearly from this earth. "That sort of play is bad for the sport," moans one of lacrosse's purists, and it is widely believed that the only reason Wittelsberger did not receive enough votes to win the Turnbull trophy last year was because sportsmanship is considered one of the criteria for the award.
The winner of the trophy, McEneaney, is a junior who weighs only 150 pounds, but is as cocky as Wittelsberger is combative. Asked last week what might make the difference for Cornell in the game against Hopkins, he answered, "Eamon McEneaney."
Indeed, McEneaney was the Blue Jays' main concern. Moran calls him a "dynamic player" and says, "If he were playing in plaster of Paris, he'd still make things happen." The fast-talking Moran did not stop to explain what his star attackman might be doing knee-deep in plaster, but there is no question that is where Big Red opponents would like to put him. Primarily a feeder, McEneaney is exceptionally quick and very adept at shaking loose from one defender, drawing another one to him, then flicking a pass to an open teammate—frequently French—for a goal. This pattern has worked so well this season that French, a 6'2", 190-pound senior from Canada who had played only indoor lacrosse before coming to Cornell, is maintaining a pace that will break the NCAA scoring record he set last year, which in turn broke the NCAA scoring record he set in 1974.
For Moran the Hopkins game clearly meant more than a chance to redeem the reputation of his attack. On the surface, the Cornell coach is a most relaxed man and a noted prankster of the fraternity-house genre. He recently sent a new team manager back to the gym for a bucket of steam—so the players could "steam their sticks." Despite his usual joking, his players had good reason to believe that Moran especially wanted a win over Hopkins. He invariably cautions his team to play one game at a time, so he was noticeably out of character early last week when he told his players during the halftime of an easy win over Syracuse, "We have this game to get over with, then we have to get ready for Hopkins." On the night before the game in Baltimore, he said, "I'm 0-3 against Hopkins. [Cornell was 1-9-1 in games against the Blue Jays dating back to 1894.] I'm sure Chic has told his players that. I certainly have told mine."
The big question mark for Cornell was how its three sophomore defensemen, Robert Katz, Chris Kane and Frank Muehleman—all of whom had been ineligible to play in 1975 because of a recently lifted Ivy League ban against freshman participation in varsity team sports—and a junior goalie, Dan Mackesey, who saw little action last year, would hold up against the Hopkins attack. Moran felt that the opening minutes would be the most important part of the game. "If we allow Hopkins to put real strong pressure on our defense immediately, we'll have trouble," he said. "We've got to let those sophomores get the feel of the game."
The early going went exactly as Moran had hoped. While building a 3-1 lead, the Cornell offense played a more deliberate game than usual in order to control the ball and ease its defense into the action. Then goals by Wittelsberger and O'Neill tied the score at 3-3 at the end of the first quarter.
Hopkins soon moved ahead by scores of 4-3 and 5-4, but just as the Blue Jays seemed ready to widen their margin, one of Cornell's tri-captains, Bill Marino, scooped up a loose ball near midfield and raced unchallenged to the Hopkins goal to tie the score again. "It was 95° out there," said Moran, noting the record temperature in Baltimore. "Still, Billy ran 80 yards with the ball and shot it in the goal without ever breaking stride. He looked like Citation." Twenty-eight seconds later French put Cornell back into the lead with an unassisted goal.
Hopkins rallied once more, this time tying the score on an O'Neill-assisted goal with 5:30 to play in the first half, but that was the Blue Jays' last gasp. McEneaney put the Big Red into the lead for good 55 seconds later, and in the final 33 seconds of the half Cornell scored two more goals, one of them an unassisted effort by French, to open a 9-6 lead.
Incredibly, Hopkins' attack did not score again. The Blue Jays' only goal in the second half was made by freshman Defenseman Mike Sheedy on a fast break. In fact, Hopkins' high scorers rarely got the ball. Cornell's Brian Lasda repeatedly controlled face-offs—he won 16 of 24—a factor Moran cited as crucial in keeping pressure off his defense. Nor could Hopkins clear the ball out of its end of the field with any regularity. In all, Cornell broke 14 of Hopkins' clears, evidence that the Big Red attackmen and midfielders are aggressive riders as well as good shooters.
When Hopkins was able to get the ball past midfield, Cornell's well-rested defense showed total disdain for Hopkins' reputation for picking apart pressure defenses. The Big Red swarmed the man with the ball and intimidated the Blue Jays into bad passes and sloppy stick work. Wittelsberger became so frustrated that he started taking wild shots, drew two slashing fouls and finally went to the bench. Meanwhile, McEneaney added two assists and another goal and French popped in his third unassisted score as Cornell methodically tallied three goals in each of the final two periods to seal a 15-7 win.
"What can I say?" Ciccarone conceded. "They won the war of the attacks today. There's no doubt about that. It's one-to-one now. I just hope we get another chance." That could happen in the NCAA tournament, and if it does, the result should be a shootout that even Wyatt Earp would not want to miss.