When Johns Hopkins beat North Carolina in the semifinals of the NCAA lacrosse tournament two weeks ago, the Blue Jays figured they had the national title sewed up. They hung a sign outside their locker room that read: THE MONKEY is DEAD. For two years the Tar Heels had been the monkey on the Jays' back, having defeated Hopkins for the national title in 1981 and '82. This year they handed the Jays, 12-1 in the regular season, their only loss, slipping past them in double overtime on April 9. Now, with North Carolina out of the way, all Hopkins had to do to clinch its 39th national crown was roll up Syracuse. Well, the Jays may have shucked the monkey, but they choked on the Orange.
In the small world of lacrosse, Syracuse seems as far away as Kuala Lumpur. The Orange hadn't won the title since 1925, and even then had to share it with Maryland. In 1957, Syracuse was undefeated, but in those pretournament days the national championship was awarded by a vote of the coaches. That year the honors went to the Blue Jays, presumably because they had a tougher schedule. Since then the closest Syracuse had come was the semis in 1980, when it lost out to Hopkins once again.
This season the 13-1 Orange came into the playoffs seeded second to the Jays. For a couple of weeks in midseason, Syracuse had been ranked No. 1, before losing 9-6 to the slowdown tactics of Army, which Hopkins earlier had defeated by the same score. The Jays play a patterned, methodical game that exploits opponents' errors. The Orangemen, on the other hand, are a manic, fast-breaking band, deadly when a man up.
At the start of the tournament final at Rutgers Stadium in Piscataway, N.J. last Saturday, Hopkins took Syracuse's game away. The Jays outran the Orange and even scored when Syracuse had the extra man. Hopkins poked in the first three goals and at halftime led 8-4. Eight different Blue Jays had scored, which is pretty good lacrosse.
Orange Coach Roy Simmons Jr., an accomplished sculptor who sells his work for as much as $700, had told his team to chip away at Hopkins Goalie Brian Holman. Syracuse chipped, but nothing cracked. Midway through the third quarter, Hopkins' lead was 12-5. "When we got down by seven, Hopkins put in its second attack," said Jeff McCormick, an All-America Orange defenseman, afterward. "It was as if to say, 'Now, watch this!' Right then, Darren [Lawlor] gave me a wink." Moments later Lawlor, a defenseman who's not supposed to score, rumbled into the offensive zone, spun around two Hopkins defensemen in front of the crease and slammed in a goal. A minute later Midfielder Mike Powers of Syracuse scored. Powers had transferred to the Orange from Hopkins after he was told he'd never be more than a face-off man for the Jays.
Hopkins scored 42 seconds later to make it 13-7. Then Syracuse's fast break exploded. Over the next eight minutes the Orange scored eight unanswered goals, which is also pretty good lacrosse. "It's funny," said Syracuse Attackman Tim Nelson, a splendid feeder who had a goal and three assists in the eight-goal spurt and eight points for the game. "The look in the Hopkins players' eyes said it was no big deal. They just didn't seem like national champions."
And Nelson turned out to be right. Hopkins never regained the lead and seemed weary at the end. "Our strategy was run 'em, run 'em, run 'em," said Brad Kotz, the game's high goal-scorer with five. The final score was 17-16, Syracuse.
If anything, the Orange appeared stunned by the win. That Syracuse even got to the playoffs was something of a surprise. Last year it was 6-4, lost to two Division III teams and didn't make the tournament. The school tries to be a power in football and is hugely successful in basketball but only gives partial scholarships in lacrosse. Most of its lacrosse players are homegrown; fully a third of the present team comes from the same high school in West Genesee, a Syracuse suburb. By contrast, Hopkins draws its players mostly from Maryland and Long Island, veritable petri dishes of lacrosse culture.
Hopkins started playing lacrosse 100 years ago when Chester A. Arthur was in office. The Jays last lost to Syracuse in 1923, during Warren Harding's administration, and when they edged the Orange in the voting for the mythical national title in '57, Eisenhower was in the White House. "It was frustrating," says Simmons, a midfielder on that Syracuse squad. "We knew we were the best and weren't able to prove it."
The '57 team was led by the greatest lacrosse player of all time, Jim Brown, who enjoyed a modicum of success in football. The Orangemen were coached that year by Simmons' father, Roy Sr., a semilegend around Syracuse.
The elder Simmons, an irascible and unpretentious 83-year-old, was in the press box last Saturday to watch his son's first championship game. He turned the air blue with smoke from Blend Eleven Aromatic pipe tobacco and a pungent running commentary. "How the hell is it their ball? ...Sonuvabitch, that was another lucky goal.... Anybody takin' a shot like that on me would wind up on his butt."
Fifty-nine years ago, he was an All-America defenseman on the Orange's last national-title-winning team. He hung around after graduating, coaching boxing and football, and in 1931 became coach of the lacrosse team. His son started in the sport as the Syracuse mascot and took over for his dad in 1971.
Roy Jr. thought about going to archrival Cornell to become a veterinarian, but his father dissuaded him. At Syracuse he studied sculpture—his degree is in fine arts—and played lacrosse well enough to become an All-America himself.
When he took over as coach 12 years ago, lacrosse wasn't exactly a high priority; it was hardly even in the Orange athletic budget. Simmons had to string the rackets and lime the field himself and make cheese sandwiches for the team's road trips. "Things got so bad," he says, "that in one game against Cornell we didn't have enough sticks and had to borrow them. It was embarrassing."
Simmons is a big, mild, equable guy, with stray wisps of hair the color of old clothesline tucked under his cap. "I'm probably the only coach who thinks X's and O's are hugs and kisses," he says. He runs his team freely and easily, watching his players practice like a painter contemplating a landscape.
His artwork these days mostly takes the form of shadowbox constructions—usually about 18" X 24"—stuffed with artifacts and ephemera. To him, putting together a team is like assembling one of his collages. "There's a physical jell not unlike the visual jell in my art," he says. "We pick up kids from all walks of life and phases of emotion."
This year's assemblage included refugees from Army, Navy and Hopkins. Nelson, the feeder—he had 50 assists this season—was plucked from the defunct North Carolina State team. Simmons' starting goalie, a blocky Onondaga Indian named Travis Solomon, was found in a junior college in upstate New York.
Simmons' decision to stay with Solomon in the title game after he had been shelled for 13 goals in the first three quarters seemed questionable. "I hope he gets hot in the last quarter," growled the coach's father.
He did. Solomon showed moves uncommon for someone with his bulk and allowed just three fourth-quarter goals, all on deflected shots. Even old man Simmons was satisfied.
For Hopkins Coach Henry (Chic) Ciccarone, it was the third year in a row his team had lost the championship game. Ciccarone is a believer in omens. He performs rituals such as eating cheesecake with his team in the Lacrosse Hall of Fame the week of the title game. This season he wore a white Hopkins lacrosse centennial polo shirt during games, for luck. "The shirt's been good to me," he said before Saturday's face-off.
Earlier this season Ciccarone's wife, Sue, had mistakenly washed a white button-down shirt instead of the lucky centennial model before an away game with Delaware. "Where's my shirt?" Ciccarone asked frantically as he was packing for the trip.
"It hasn't been washed yet," she said.
"Oh, my god," he gasped. Then he steadied himself. "It's O.K.," he told her. "Really, it's O.K.... But if we lose, it's your fault."
With its coach looking uncomfortable in his substitute shirt, Hopkins won that game 15-10, perhaps saving the Ciccarones' marriage. Saturday the lucky shirt was back on his back. After the loss, Sue muttered, "He should have worn the button-down."