Titles are cradled elsewhere now

Powers: The state remains the sport's focal point, but the nation's two elite programs don't have Maryland addresses.

Men's College Lacrosse Preview

February 21, 2003|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

The NCAA lacrosse championships are coming to town.

Will the Division I trophy itself ever reside here again?

The sport's Hall of Fame is adjacent to Homewood Field, on the campus of Johns Hopkins University. Its premier event will take over Ravens Stadium in late May. Organizers plan to feed on local interest to strengthen the claim that this is the best college lacrosse town, but the reality is that a pair of programs to the north have applied a stranglehold to the national title.

The Blue Jays haven't won it all since 1987. Coach Dave Pietramala was a senior in 1989, the last time they reached the NCAA final. Loyola, Towson and Maryland have since played on Memorial Day, but none slayed the two-headed monster that is Princeton-Syracuse.

That has been the pairing in the past three championship games. The Orangemen have been in the final four each of the past 20 years, one of the most remarkable runs in any NCAA sport. Princeton won six titles between 1992 and 2001, matching the feat Hopkins pulled off from 1978 to 1987.

The longing extends to Division III. If you think the "War on the Shore," the rivalry between public Salisbury University and private Washington College, is still a precursor to what will go down in May, guess again. Middlebury, closer to Montreal than Manhattan in remote Vermont, is going for a four-peat.

Do Hopkins, Maryland or any of the state's Division I teams have any hope of breaking through? How were they eclipsed in the first place?

"What's amazing," said Terps coach Dave Cottle, "is that Princeton and Syracuse went about it in two completely different ways."

Syracuse perpetuates a dynasty that turned a corner when it brought in twin brothers from Vancouver who revolutionized the game. Gary and Paul Gait won championships in 1988, '89 and '90, as they introduced ground-breaking moves and the cult of celebrity to lacrosse.

What Bill Tierney did at Princeton is more impressive.

After the Gaits left Syracuse and Hopkins went outside its family to hire Tony Seaman as Don Zimmerman's replacement after the 1990 season, a window of opportunity opened and Tierney jumped through it. He took a mediocre legacy, tweaked some of the defensive precepts he had acquired during his three seasons as a Blue Jays assistant and made Princeton perfect by 1997.

The layman appreciates the Tigers' cerebral power and the athleticism of the Orangemen, and underestimates Syracuse's scheming and Princeton's raw talent. Ryan Boyle and Damien Davis, the Tigers' top attackman and defenseman, respectively, were multi-sport stars at Gilman. Orangemen coach John Desko didn't win two of the past three titles by rolling out the ball at practice, but by deciphering the Princeton defense.

"I'm not taking anything away from Coach Tierney and his defense," Pietramala said, "but what's lost is how unbelievably talented Princeton has been. Conversely, everyone talks about how offensive-minded Syracuse is, but they've turned out some big-time defensemen and their coaches have done a terrific job."

Desko does it with only one full-time assistant coach, Roy Simmons III.

Tierney does it partly with smarts.

"We play less lacrosse at Princeton than any other program in the country," Tierney said. "As nerve-wracking as it may be to say that to a recruit, in the long run that's one reason why we're fresher in May."

That month is also affected by mystique.

"I was stunned last year, when I heard that we're 20-0 [actually 24-0] in the NCAAs against everyone except Syracuse," Tierney said. "Maybe we have the same feeling about them that other schools have about the two of us."

Tierney sells the sterling academic reputation of Princeton, which sees itself a cut above even in the Ivy League.

Syracuse, meanwhile, is on an island of its own. There are seven other Division I programs within an hour's drive of Hopkins. Only Hobart is that close to the Carrier Dome. Loyola coach Bill Dirrigl grew up in Rochester, played with the Gaits at Syracuse and saw how they popularized the game across New York. So did Seaman, the Towson coach who was raised in a small town in the Adirondacks.

"Going away for a kid in upstate New York is going to Syracuse," Seaman said. "Here, you have to share the wealth."

Nowhere is a regular-season game the event it is at the Carrier Dome.

"Syracuse doesn't have to share time with the Ravens or the Orioles," Desko said. "You've got to drive three hours to see an NFL game, more for major-league baseball."

One sells Carrier Dome crowds, the other an Ivy League degree. Prospects analyze track records at the NCAA tournament, but do the name brands go as far as they used to?

"You hear a lot of talk about our demise," Tierney said. "For a while, we were on a roll in the recruiting world. It's not as easy as it has been."

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