State lacrosse teams target elusive title

Johns Hopkins in 1987 was last champ from Md.

College Lacrosse

May 15, 2004|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,SUN STAFF

College lacrosse's pinnacle event, the NCAA Division I men's final four, will leave Maryland after this season, destined for Philadelphia's Lincoln Financial Field for two years.

Will the state's national championship drought go with it?

As the NCAA tournament begins today with five first-round games at campus sites and three more scheduled for tomorrow, four of the state's programs are chasing Maryland's first national championship since Don Zimmerman's Johns Hopkins Blue Jays reigned in 1987.

Hopkins, Navy and Maryland snared the top three seeds, as they did in 1979 when all three advanced to the semifinals.

Tony Seaman also seemed content that his Towson team drew a No. 12 seed and a first-round matchup tomorrow at No. 5 Georgetown.

The way the brackets are set up, it's possible - though remote - that the Maryland teams could rendezvous in the final four at M&T Bank Stadium on Memorial Day weekend.

"That would be pretty neat, but we have a long way to go before I think about that happening," Seaman said.

Indeed. Seaman's Tigers first will have to upend the Hoyas and then probably fourth-seeded Syracuse in the quarterfinals, which would mean denying the surest thing in college lacrosse - the Orangemen have been to 21 straight final fours.

Maryland's path to a second straight final four starts with Army tonight and then might have to go through Princeton, which drew state rival Rutgers in the first round.

Princeton and Syracuse aren't exactly new roadblocks.

Since 1987 when the Blue Jays won their third NCAA crown in four years, Syracuse has celebrated seven titles (though 1990's win was vacated because of NCAA violations). Princeton has six, Virginia two and North Carolina one.

"I look at Maryland and it's amazing that we haven't won one since 1975," said Terps third-year coach Dave Cottle, who guided Loyola to the national championship game in 1990. "I think Princeton and Syracuse had gotten better players for a long time and there's a lot of other good teams out there. It's hard to win a championship."

Added Seaman, who guided Hopkins to four final fours in eight years before reaching that plateau with Towson in 2001: "I think a big thing that happened was there were two kids named the Gait brothers that showed up at Syracuse's door in the late '80s and that certainly helped."

Regarded as two of the greatest players ever, Paul and Gary Gait, charismatic brothers from Vancouver who revolutionized the game with their skill and athleticism, won three national championships, losing just one game in their last three seasons at Syracuse.

Maryland schools have had plenty of chances to loosen Princeton's and Syracuse's stranglehold on the title.

Since 1987, only two final fours have been contested with no Maryland teams. And the state has been represented in the national final seven times in the past 16 years, including last year when Virginia rode the spectacular play of goalie Tillman Johnson to a 9-7 victory over top-seeded Hopkins.

"It's very interesting that a Maryland team hasn't won, but I don't have the answer for it," said Blue Jays coach Dave Pietramala, who was on Hopkins' 1987 team that beat Cornell for the title as well as the 1989 squad that fell to Syracuse, 13-12, in the final. "But I sure would like to change that."

In a state that just this week established lacrosse as its official team sport, it's doubtful any team is facing as much pressure as Pietramala's Blue Jays, who carry the top seed for the third straight year into today's first-round game vs. Providence and know that nemesis Virginia will not be in their way.

Last year's national champs finished below the .500 mark required to make the tournament.

Hopkins plays its home games adjacent to the sport's hall of fame at Homewood Field, the Yankee Stadium of lacrosse. The Blue Jays' 42 total championships, including seven NCAA crowns, dwarf what is in everybody else's lacrosse trophy case, but the program is in the midst of the longest title dry spell in its 122-year history.

"The guys here right now are not responsible for the Hopkins drought," said Pietramala, who has taken his team one round further in each of his first three seasons. "The longest group has been here for four years and this group has taken steps each year to improve. I don't know if they feel the pressure, but I do know they are aware of it."

Navy hasn't advanced to the tournament's second round since 1989, but this hasn't been a typical season in Annapolis.

After going 6-7 last year, the Mids rebounded with a program-record 11 wins and seek to keep their momentum rolling tomorrow when they host Pennsylvania.

"I think what people should celebrate is there are some great college lacrosse teams in the state of Maryland," said Mids coach Richie Meade. "That's what is really important."

Princeton coach Bill Tierney, who is fielding one of his youngest teams in 17 seasons, agreed.

"It's always, what have you done for me lately?" Tierney said. "In the history of our sport, the state of Maryland, particularly Johns Hopkins, has been forefront to the growth and success of our game. I'm sure it's imminent that they'll win one.

"At Princeton, we've gone from the Cinderella story of lacrosse in 1992 to one of the teams everybody likes to see out if it the most. It just goes in strings. Fifteen years from now, you could be asking, `How the heck has the national championship stayed in Maryland for 15 years?' "

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