Before meeting small-college powerhouse Hobart last week, in what was billed as the Super Bowl of lacrosse, Cornell Coach Richie Moran covered the blackboard in his team's locker room with his favorite aphorisms, BE YOURSELF. SEEIN' RED FOR 60 MINUTES. HAPPINESS IS BEATING HOBART. IT'S GREAT TO BE HERE! Notably absent, however, was one of Moran's old reliables: STAY DOWN ON THE FARM—his way of warning his players not to get too cocky or overconfident. It was not that Moran thought the admonishment unnecessary in preparing for what figured to be the game of the year, it was just that he chose to hammer the message home orally. These days keeping the Big Red players down on the farm is Moran's biggest chore. After all, not one of them has ever lost a varsity or freshman game at Cornell.
Moran's team kept that record intact by squeaking past Hobart 13-11 before 10,500 fans at Cornell's Schoellkopf Field. That triumph and a 17-7 trouncing of Massachusetts four days later gave the Big Red 32 consecutive wins over the past three years. The longest winning streak in college lacrosse is 33 games by Navy from 1964 to 1967. Cornell can surpass that record next week in Baltimore by beating Johns Hopkins.
The Big Red's last loss was to Navy in the 1975 NCAA semifinals. At that time this season's All-America seniors—Attackman Tom Marino; Midfielders Craig Jaeger and Bob (Hondo) Henrickson; and the entire defense of Chris Kane, Bob Katz and Frank (Patience) Muehleman—were required by Ivy League rules to play on the freshman team. That squad finished with a 9-0 record. The Ivy League dropped its freshman-ineligible rule in lacrosse in 1976, and that year and in 1977 Cornell became the first Division I school to win back-to-back NCAA tournaments, with records of 16-0 and 13-0.
But until last week there had been a slight hollowness to Cornell's accomplishments. To the Big Red's chagrin, a lot of the lacrosse headlines have been devoted to tiny Hobart (enrollment 1,050), located on Seneca Lake about 45 miles north of Cornell's outpost high above Cayuga's waters. Not only has Hobart won Division II titles the past two seasons, but it also had reached the tournament finals the two years before that, losing each time by a single goal.
Last year the Statesmen were anything but diplomatic, humiliating opponents by an average margin of more than 17 goals on their way to a 15-0 record. A March 1977 game with Cornell was snowed out, and at season's end, after Hobart had easily beaten Washington College and Cornell had trounced Hopkins for their respective championships, a debate arose over which school had the best team.
To add drama to last week's confrontation, in a preseason poll of lacrosse coaches Cornell and Hobart were unanimously picked to repeat as NCAA titlists. Baltimore may still be the home of the oriole, Blaze Starr and crab cakes, but the capital of lacrosse has moved north to the scenic Finger Lakes region of New York.
Considering all the championship trophies and lofty rankings, keeping players down on the farm requires a deft touch. Fortunately for Cornell, Moran is blessed with more than his share of blarney. "Richie should have sold used cars," says Marino. "He would have made a million dollars." Maybe more. After all, he has sold his players on the notion that they are beatable.
To keep Big Red players in line, Moran constantly needles them. When they moan about his Parris Island-style practices or a game plan that seems unduly demanding, he casually remarks, "That's one of the nice things about having depth." No one takes his statements at face value—there is always a twinkle in his eye—but the underlying message is unmistakable. "Richie never stops giving it to us," says Kane, who last year was voted the outstanding defenseman in the country. "On the first day of practice he walked up to me and said, 'Don't be surprised if you get cut from the squad. That award you won last year...what baloney.' Lately he's been telling me to expect thank-you letters in the mail. He says the way I've played I've already made two attackmen All-Americas."
Before the Hobart game, Moran was uncharacteristically serious. Referring to an earlier 18-12 exhibition win over Mt. Washington, the 1977 champion among lacrosse clubs, and an impressive 16-3 season-opening triumph against Cortland (N.Y.) State, Moran told his players, "Those are games that you'll remember all year. This is a game you'll remember all your life."
Cornell started as if it truly wanted to make the occasion memorable. Playing almost flawlessly, the Big Red scored the game's first five goals and took a 7-2 half-time lead. The score might have been more lopsided had it not been for some sensational play by Hobart Goalie Rick Blick. On defense, Kane and his mates swarmed all over the Statesmen, particularly Attackman Terry Corcoran, who was Hobart's high scorer last season, averaging four goals per game. Corcoran had Patience Muehleman, whose nickname reflects the tenacity of his defense, for a dancing partner all afternoon, and whenever Corcoran made a move to the cage, he was buffeted by the Big Red's other defenders. "We turn to the basic fundamentals of cleaning a guy's clock when we have to," says Kane. Corcoran never scored. Nor did he contemplate writing any thank-you letters.
But at halftime Moran began to worry. He sensed a letdown, a loss of enthusiasm and, yes, overconfidence. Vainly he tried to shake his team's complacency by making them stand and hold hands, normally a pregame ritual. In the other locker room, Hobart Coach Jerry Schmidt offered a simple halftime message: "Anybody who thinks we can't come back shouldn't go out there again." Schmidt had history on his side. In 1972, when Cornell was the defending national champion, it held a 7-4 halftime lead in a game against Hobart. The Statesmen rallied for an 11-10 upset.
A replay of that comeback did not seem possible after Jaeger's second and third goals of the game helped Cornell keep its five-goal margin until late in the third quarter. But as a drizzle turned into a downpour, the Big Red offense suddenly went soggy. Incredibly, for 11½ minutes in the third and fourth quarters, Cornell failed to get a shot off. "Our offense is based on six-man patterns, on moving the ball," said Moran, "but suddenly everyone was trying to do it all alone. We played right into the hands of their defense."
During that span, Hobart's scorers were chipping away at the Cornell lead. With 4:15 left in the game, freshman Midfielder Mark Darcangelo danced through the Big Red defense and bounced a shot past Goalie John Griffin to give the Statesmen an 11-10 lead. It was Hobart's sixth consecutive goal.
Surprisingly, Moran did not call a time-out. "My players knew what they needed to do," he said. "Sometimes it takes a traumatic experience to wake them up." Within 42 seconds Cornell had tied the score. First, Marino settled the team by taking the ball behind the cage. That started up the Big Red patterns again. Then, when a Statesman defender dropped off Cornell Midfielder John Sierra to double-team Marino, Marino quickly flipped to Sierra for the tying goal. The winning score came less than two minutes later, when Jaeger, unassisted, fired in his fourth goal.
Hobart had one last chance to tie the score. Darcangelo took the shot, a high, hard liner from about 15 yards out. Griffin netted it easily above his left shoulder. "I tried to put it in the corner, but I just put it right in his stick," said a downcast Darcangelo. "He's a right-handed goalie, so I thought I could stick the ball in the left corner. It sure looked open to me."
Cornell added the final, superfluous goal with four seconds left when Steve Page attempted a shot from 10 yards in front of the cage just as he was hit by two onrushing defensemen and Blick. The ball blooped into the air over the defenders and bounced ever so slowly into the goal as the frustrated Blick threw his stick after it.
Despite the loss, Schmidt was pleased with Hobart's play. "I think the two best teams playing lacrosse were definitely out there today," he said. "I know it's early to say that, but I think the season will prove me right." Schmidt then visited the Cornell locker room to congratulate the Big Red players. "We're rooting for you," he told them. "More than anything else, let's keep the national titles in upstate New York."
Hobart's strong showing against Cornell can only enhance its stature in Division II. Jaeger, for his part, felt that the Big Red gained more than just a win. "That was a good game for us, because it taught us that we have to keep our poise," he said. "We lost it out there. We were running around like chickens with our heads chopped off. That won't happen again."
No doubt the Big Red will now start running around like chickens that have learned the value of staying down on the farm.