With only seconds to play in last Saturday's NCAA championship lacrosse game, Johns Hopkins fans burst out singing "Aaa-men, aaa-men, aaaaa-men, amen, amen!" For the Blue Jays the chant joyously proclaimed a new national champion. For rival Cornell it sounded a knell to one of the best teams and the longest winning streak in college lacrosse history. Going into the game with Hopkins, the Big Red had won a record 42 straight. None of the 15 seniors on the squad had ever lost at Cornell. But in its last game, in front of a crowd of 17,500 at Rutgers, this celebrated team finally came out on the short end of the lacrosse stick. When the singing ended, so had Cornell's string by a score of 13-8.
In all likelihood the NCAA final also marked the end of a major component of the game of lacrosse—the faceoff. Hoping to speed up play, the lacrosse rules committee has recommended that a team that has been scored upon simply pass the ball in bounds in the manner of basketball. As the rules stand now, a faceoff is held at midfield following each goal. The NCAA will probably approve that recommendation in the near future. Tomorrow would not be soon enough for Cornell, which lost 20 of 27 faceoffs and, thereby, the NCAA title.
By coincidence, the only other time the Blue Jays won the 8-year-old NCAA tournament the site was also Rutgers and the winning margin was also five goals. Cornell Coach Richie Moran watched that 1974 championship game between Hopkins and Maryland from a grassy bank above the southeast end of Rutgers Stadium. If a smile flickered across his face that day, it was understandable. In the spring of 1974 Moran had completed his most successful recruiting year. No doubt he sensed that it was just a matter of time before he would return to the finals and regain the title he had won in 1971.
In 1975 Moran's recruits, playing on a freshman squad, quickly showed their mettle by putting together a 9-0 record. The next season they were the backbone of the first team to win an NCAA tournament while going undefeated. Last year the Big Red duplicated that feat. When they beat Hopkins 16-11 seven weeks ago, they stretched their winning streak to 34 to break the collegiate record of 33 straight set by Navy between 1964 and 1967.
June 4, 1978
The fact that Navy's string had been broken by another Hopkins team was not viewed by anyone as an omen in the days before last week's finals. Instead, lacrosse enthusiasts were busily likening Cornell to the great teams of the past. Comparisons were most frequently drawn with Coach Bill Bilderback's Navy squads that won eight straight national championships between 1960 and 1967, when the title was decided by a vote of coaches. Or perhaps Cornell was more similar to the Hopkins team that did not lose a college game for four straight seasons between 1947 and 1950. If Cornell was not quite the equal of those clubs, it certainly ranked with the 1973 Maryland powerhouse that won the title and seemed on the verge of establishing a dynasty. Those were the Terps who were upset by Hopkins in the following year's championship game at Rutgers. Surely, no one could overlook so obvious an omen.
But almost all the experts did and, as the final neared, the only ones who gave Hopkins a chance were the Blue Jays themselves. To their way of thinking, there have been not just one, but two great teams in lacrosse the past two seasons. Going into its game with the Big Red, Hopkins had its own NCC 24-game winning streak dating back to 1976. Unfortunately for the Blue Jays, NCC stands for "Not Counting Cornell," because the Big Red had defeated Hopkins four straight times during that period.
Cornell's domination was particularly painful for two Blue Jays. One was Coach Henry (Chic) Ciccarone, who succeeded the highly successful Bob Scott in 1975. All Scott did to ease the way for Ciccarone was bow out by winning the 1974 NCAA title. At Hopkins, which still considers itself the center of lacrosse, national titles are expected by everyone. Blue Jay coaches do not celebrate when they win a championship; they breathe sighs of relief. Ciccarone had never won one, and in each of the past two years his team had been eliminated by the Big Red. To make matters worse, Hopkins President Steven Muller had previously served as a Cornell vice-president. He considers losing to the Big Red an unpardonable sin.
Last week Ciccarone made sure that no Blue Jay forgot who his opponent was. The Lacrosse Hall of Fame is located at Hopkins, natch, and among its treasures is a mannequin decked out in the uniform of the previous year's NCAA Division I champion. For the past two years, that dummy has worn carnelian and white. After Tuesday's practice, Ciccarone treated his players to some of his wife Sue's cheesecake, which he served up in the Hall of Fame so his players could get a good taste of the Cornell mannequin.
The other suffering Blue Jay was senior Attackman Mike O'Neill. Back in the spring of 1974, when Moran was rounding up his prize class, O'Neill was considered the best prospect in the country. Two of his teammates at Massapequa (N.Y.) High, Attackman Tom Marino and Midfielder Craig Jaeger, became stars at Cornell. Marino and O'Neill had planned to go to college together. Both were accepted at Hopkins and put on the waiting list at Cornell. O'Neill didn't wait; Marino did. But when it came to a national championship, it was O'Neill who was left twiddling his thumbs.
O'Neill, a three-time All-America, is the undisputed leader of the Blue Jays, the sole captain of a team that had had at least two captains every season from 1952 to 1977. He is the consummate attackman, equally adept at shooting and feeding, tough on ground balls and relentless at riding on clears. "He is totally unselfish," says Hopkins Assistant Coach Jerry Schnydman. "Some attackmen have to score their goals. Michael couldn't care less."
O'Neill dedicated this season to winning a national championship, and his single-mindedness rubbed off on his teammates. Usually a loose and lively bunch, the Blue Jays came to Rutgers displaying all the frivolity of a group of CPAs getting ready to tackle tax returns. Sensing the magnitude of the moment, O'Neill's friends brought his dog Blaney up from Baltimore to witness the game.
Hopkins' strategy was to prevent Cornell from fast-breaking, and to do this the Blue Jays had to control the faceoffs. Their faceoff man is freshman Midfielder Ned Radebaugh, who learned his specialty from his older brother Doug, a member of Maryland's 1973 team and one of the best faceoff men in lacrosse history. During most of last week's game Radebaugh's Cornell counterpart was Jaeger, whose favorite faceoff technique is to clamp the ball to the ground under the head of his stick while butting his opponent out of position with a shoulder. To counter this move, Radebaugh also clamped the ball, but instead of going shoulder to shoulder against Jaeger's blocks, he ducked underneath the Cornellian's thrusts. Jaeger was frequently left off balance, blocking nothing but air, while Radebaugh raked the ball away. The tactic worked so well that during one stretch in the second, third and fourth quarters Radebaugh controlled 13 consecutive faceoffs.
That string helped Hopkins overcome the 4-2 lead Cornell held early in the second quarter, but it was not enough to break the game open. With his team leading only 9-7 at the start of the fourth quarter, Radebaugh began a Hopkins surge, beating Jaeger badly on a faceoff. That ignited a fast break, with O'Neill passing perfectly to Attackman Jim Bidne for the goal. Midway through the quarter O'Neill scored his only goal of the game, unassisted, on another fast break to give Hopkins an 11-7 lead. Two minutes later he clinched the win by feeding a perfect assist from behind the goal to Attackman Frank Cutrone, who pumped in the score that made it 12-7. For the day O'Neill had three assists and twice drew penalties that led to extra-man goals for Hopkins.
In the raucous Blue Jay dressing room Ciccarone was carried fully clothed into a shower and then doused with champagne by players who now bore no resemblance to CPAs. "Winning the title is great," he said, "but beating Cornell after what they've done to us, well...." Ciccarone could not find words to express the sweetness of his triumph. He really didn't need to. The chorus of amens had said it all.