There's nothing like watching the best in any sport. That being the case, lacrosse fans here are in for a treat the next two weekends.
The best team in the game is Syracuse University. The No. 1-ranked Orangemen will play at No. 4 Johns Hopkins Saturday at 2 p.m. The following Saturday they'll be at Towson State at 1 p.m.
It may surprise -- even offend -- Baltimoreans to see Syracuse referred to as the best. After all, Johns Hopkins has won or tied for 42 national championships. Syracuse has won nine.
The name Hopkins is synonymous with lacrosse. Army coach Jack Emmer once referred to Hopkins as "our sport's traditional champion."
Not only is Syracuse the defending NCAA Division I champion; the Orange has won four of the past six national titles. Hopkins hasn't won one since 1987.
Years ago the best players in the country came from this state. Hopkins and the University of Maryland, with home-grown talent, often met for the national championship.
Now there are many more lacrosse players on Long Island than there are in Maryland, and in Central New York -- home of Syracuse, Cornell, Hobart -- there's a rich lode of talent.
No school has recruited its home area as successfully as Syracuse.
Of the 13 Orange starters (two midfield units) who will face Hopkins, 12 are from New York State, mostly from the Syracuse area. The other, star defenseman Ric Beardsley, lives in Florida but was born in New York.
Hopkins' top 13: four from Long Island, three from elsewhere in New York, five from Maryland and one from New Jersey.
People talk about parity in lacrosse as a reason why Hopkins no longer dominates. They cite the development of top programs over the past 15 years at North Carolina, Virginia, Loyola, Towson State and Princeton.
There's really not a lot of parity, though. Said Loyola coach Dave Cottle at this week's news conference at the Lacrosse Foundation:
"Syracuse and Princeton are physically superior to everybody else. Then there's a bunch of us who can win any game if we play well or lose any game if we don't play well."
Syracuse attracts top lacrosse players for a lot of reasons. There's the winning, of course. There's the Carrier Dome, where home games (the team is 82-5 in the Dome) are played before large crowds, never in snow or rain or cold.
There were 11,506 in the Dome for Syracuse-Carolina two weeks ago. The same day Hopkins and Princeton drew 5,000 here. The Orangemen have played before the five largest crowds in college lacrosse history -- and won all five games.
Not the least of the attractions at Syracuse is legendary lacrosse coach Roy Simmons Jr.
Roy's father, Roy Sr., coached the team for 40 years. Roy Jr. is in his 24th year. Since the NCAA tournament began in 1971, Simmons, a member of the Lacrosse Hall of Fame (so's his dad), has won five titles. No one else has won more than three.
Most people around here really don't know Simmons. They see this 58-year-old man at the Syracuse bench, unruly sprigs of gray hair jutting out from under his baseball cap, and they tend not to like him. Those who win too much are seldom loved by the people they beat.
Plus, Simmons is different. He's not a member of the lacrosse coaching clique and wouldn't join if he were invited.
Roy is an award-winning artist whose works are exhibited in museums across the country. He's a student of pre-Colombian Andean textiles, a field that has never held much appeal for his coaching brethren.
When Syracuse beat Carolina (13-12) for the national championship last year, there was a cloud over Simmons' program. An ex-player had gone to the NCAA and accused the school of violations, but an internal investigation turned up nothing.
"We're still waiting for the other shoe to drop," Simmons said yesterday. "We sent a very, very in-depth report to the NCAA. They wrote back and asked more questions. It's annoying but we feel as we did 10 months ago that there's nothing to it."
Quint Kessenich, when he was Hopkins' All-America goalie in the late '80s, just assumed he wouldn't like Simmons. How can you like the leader of the Bad Guys?
After graduation, Kessenich spent three days on business with Simmons in Syracuse and had his eyes opened.
"I love Roy Simmons," he said. "He's by far the most intellectual of all the lacrosse coaches."
At Loyola College, the full-time assistant coach is Bill Dirrgl, who played with the Gait twins at Syracuse.
"Roy Simmons is the finest man in the game of lacrosse," Dirrgl said emphatically. "He treats every player like a son."
What about the charges?
"That," said Dirrgl angrily, "was done by one guy who was bitter because he didn't make it up there and tried to get back at the program. The university spent $500,000 on that investigation. If there was anything wrong, they would have found it."
Simmons' teams are a treat to watch. He recruits great athletes and lets them play. He does not, he insists, condone the TC celebratory stick-throwing that upset Carolina coach Dave Klarmann last week.
"I've got some kids who can run," said Simmons, who has three swift All-America midfielders in Dom Fin, Charlie Lockwood and Roy Colsey. "We don't have our legs yet, though. We like to peak on Memorial Day."
That's when the NCAA championship game will be played at College Park.