After 60 minutes of regulation play in the NCAA lacrosse championship in Ithaca, N.Y. last Saturday, Virginia and Johns Hopkins were tied 8-8. The deadlock was appropriate because one or the other of the two finalists had held the No. 1 ranking in the nation all season long, a tribute primarily to their having the game's best defenses. Now those defenses would be tested in sudden-death overtime, trying to stop the single goal that would determine the new champion.
Anxiety creased the face of Hopkins Coach Henry (Chic) Ciccarone as he detailed overtime strategy on the sidelines of Cornell's Schoellkopf Field. At Johns Hopkins there are only two kinds of lacrosse seasons—national championship seasons and bad seasons—and the next goal was going to decide which kind 1980 would be. The Blue Jays won their first national title way back in 1891. Now they were gunning for their 35th, which is more than twice as many as any other school has won. Over the years, lacrosse seems to have become a game of Johns Hopkins, by Johns Hopkins and for Johns Hopkins.
After consecutive NCAA championships the last two years, the Blue Jays were heavily favored this season to become the first team to win three straight since the NCAA instituted a season-ending tournament in 1971. Returning from last year's undefeated squad were most of the attackmen as well as Goalie Mike (Piggy) Federico, a two-time first-team All-America, and Mark Greenberg, who in 1979 had been the first defenseman to be named national player of the year. In addition, Hopkins had its usual good recruiting year. Among the prize catches was Baltimore's best high school midfielder, a fellow by the name of Chic Ciccarone Jr. More impressive still was the addition of two transfer students, the Schneck brothers—Lance, a defenseman from Adelphi, and Brendan, an attackman from Navy. As a Middie sophomore, Brendan Schneck had been a first-team All-America and he was widely considered to be the best offensive player in the nation.
Naturally, Hopkins was ranked No. 1 in preseason polls. The Blue Jays remained there by opening with five easy victories that stretched their three-season winning streak to 25 and had everyone saying the boys from Baltimore were invincible. Everyone, that is, except Ciccarone, who kept pointing out that this team didn't include last year's seven top midfielders, five who had graduated and two, Ned Radebaugh and Wayne Davis, who were injured. But then Ciccarone habitually poor-mouths in a vain attempt to curb the high expectations of the Hopkins students and alumni. Nobody paid any attention to him until April 5, when once-beaten Virginia upset Hopkins 12-9 and took possession of first place in the national rankings for the rest of the season.
After that loss, Ciccarone ordered a major shake-up. His biggest gamble was to move Brendan Schneck from attack, where he was leading the team in goals, to midfield, where he would only play in shifts with his line. But the gamble paid off. Schneck continued to score close to five points a game while adding needed strength and depth to the midfield. As the Blue Jays' numerous injuries finally began to heal, they became, well, invincible. Even Ciccarone had to admit, "When we were 100% healthy and playing to our ability, I think we were five or six goals better than anybody else in the country."
Unfortunately for Ciccarone, Hopkins didn't stay healthy. By the time the championship game rolled around, injury or illness had sidelined Radebaugh and Attackman Jeff Cook, the team's leading scorer before he went down, and had hobbled others. "Now we will have to play extremely well because injuries have evened the odds," said Ciccarone. He didn't know how prophetic those words would be.
To Ciccarone's anguish, neither Hopkins' injuries nor Virginia's No. 1 tournament seeding caused Blue Jay fans to modify their dreams of another national championship. Even University President Steven Muller got into the act. Because the trip to Ithaca would force the Hopkins seniors to miss graduation, they received their diplomas a day ahead of schedule in a special ceremony at the Lacrosse Hall of Fame, which, of course, is located at Hopkins. While handing out the degrees, Muller talked about the seniors' future endeavors. Then he added ominously, "If, however, your next endeavor doesn't turn out well, these diplomas will self-destruct."
Hopkins started out as if it were going to win in a rout. In a one-minute 12-second stretch early in the first quarter the Blue Jays scored the game's first three goals, and it was 4-0 before senior Midfielder John Driscoll finally got the Cavaliers on the board. In that first quarter the Virginia goalies, Brian Gregory and Joe Bottner, didn't stop a single Hopkins shot.
About this time Virginia Coach Jim (Ace) Adams may have had a comfortable feeling of dèjà vu. The Cavaliers had trailed Cornell 5-1 after just 12 minutes of the quarterfinals and had fallen behind North Carolina 10-8 with fewer than five minutes left in the semis. Both times Virginia's sophomore-dominated team had regrouped, and both times it had forced the game into sudden death. In the quarterfinals Virginia had needed only one minute of the first four-minute overtime period to win, 9-8. In the semis against Carolina, the only team to beat the Cavaliers in the regular season and the only one to score in double figures against them all year long, Virginia had to go to a second overtime period to win 11-10. No wonder Adams presented such a relaxed contrast to Ciccarone on the sidelines. Ace had been down this road before.
Once again the youthful Cavaliers settled down, holding Hopkins to a scoreless second quarter and catching the Blue Jays at 5-5 midway through the third period. By early in the fourth quarter Virginia had moved ahead 8-6.
Hopkins sorely missed Radebaugh, who normally handles faceoffs for the Blue Jays. In his absence Cavalier junior Steve Kraus, whom Ciccarone later called Virginia's "great equalizer," had a perfect day, winning 16 of his 18 faceoffs. By taking 17 of 20 overall, the Cavaliers effectively played keep-away from the Blue Jays. "When the score reached 8-6, I felt the championship was within reach," said Adams. "Our defense had been able to hold teams all year long."
But, patiently, Hopkins battled back. With 9½ minutes to play, Ciccarone's son, taking a feed from Brendan Schneck 20 yards in front of the goal, moved the Blue Jays to within one with a high, hard liner past Gregory.
Two minutes later junior Attackman Jim Zaffuto juked past Cavalier Defenseman Geoff Peters on the right side of the goal and tied the game 8-8 with a bounce shot.
In overtime each team went to its strength. Virginia gave the ball to Driscoll and cleared out so he could go one-on-one and Hopkins did the same for Schneck. But neither player was able to penetrate. Late in the first overtime freshman Attackman Mike Caravana, Virginia's leading scorer this season, took the ball 15 yards from the goal mouth and launched a low rocket toward Federico. The Hopkins goalie was momentarily screened and didn't see the ball until the last instant. He stabbed at it with his stick, lost control for a second while a horde of Cavaliers frantically tried to poke it into the net and then regained possession.
Hopkins got its best chance in the last minute of the second overtime. By then more than 14 minutes—an eon by lacrosse standards—had passed without a goal by either team. Finally, Schneck took the ball and started a play that the Blue Jays had been practicing all week. As he charged the goal, a Cavalier defender on the crease dropped off to double-team him, so he flipped the ball behind the net to Attackman Jim Bidne. He in turn quickly threw it toward Attackman Jeff Harris, who was momentarily open in the crease because of the extra attention the Virginia defense had given Schneck. "That pass was a prayer," said Bidne later. "If it hadn't worked, I'd have been benched." But the pass threaded the needle to Harris, who slapped the ball from point-blank range toward Gregory. The Virginia goalie didn't have a chance. The ball glanced off his helmet and left shoulder and into the net to give Hopkins the 1980 national championship.
Afterward, Ciccarone stood outside the Hopkins locker room praising his players. "They were down 8-6 and the momentum was going the other way, but they didn't break," he said. "Instead, they came back and shut out Virginia for the rest of the game. That's the mark of a champion."
When Ciccarone was asked how he felt about winning yet another title, his answer revealed the pressure cooker he endures as the Johns Hopkins lacrosse coach.
"Right now," he said, "I'm not excited, I'm exhausted. I'm relieved that this is over." He paused for a second, then continued with a weary shake of his head. "That was a great game for spectators, but it wasn't a great game for me."