Navy goes for first title riding sea of support

Emotional favorite is opposed by tournament-tested Syracuse

Ncaa Lacrosse Final

May 31, 2004|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,SUN STAFF

Syracuse will be up against far more than the nation's second-ranked men's lacrosse team in the NCAA Division I championship game today.

An anticipated Memorial Day crowd of more than 40,000 at M&T Bank Stadium will be squarely behind the Naval Academy. The Midshipmen have made a Cinderella run to the championship game during a time of international conflict and have captured the attention and heart of more than just the lacrosse world.

And frankly, Michael Powell, the Syracuse attackman who will end his celebrated college career today, doesn't blame those who are pulling for the Mids (15-2) to win their first NCAA title in today's 2:30 p.m. game.

"They are a great team with a great story," Powell said yesterday. "We were reading The Baltimore Sun and [teammate Steve Vallone] turned to me and said, `Geez, I almost want Navy to win after reading this article.'"

Vallone chimed in, "Almost."

Syracuse (14-2), which is in its 14th championship game and its fifth in the past six seasons, is quite comfortable in its role as the villain. But as Powell put it, trying to defeat a service academy that has been the sentimental favorite all season, and on Memorial Day, makes the Orange feel "like we are really the bad guys."

Navy coach Richie Meade's team has been motivated by the e-mails of support his team has gotten all season from former players and alumni serving abroad. But in becoming the first team since Towson State in 1990-1991 to miss the tournament one year and play in the final the next, the Mids have ridden far more than emotion.

They have used the nation's No. 1 defense, backed by sophomore goalie Matt Russell, and the nation's No. 2 offense to achieve a program-best record. They are in the championship game for the only time other than 1975.

That year, the Mids fell to Maryland, 20-13, in the title game. The academy hasn't won a national championship since 1964 in men's soccer.

"Yeah, it's a Cinderella story because we got here [after being 6-7 last year], but at the same time, we really aren't surprised with our success this year," said midfielder Ben Bailey, one of the eight Mids commissioned with Friday's graduation. "After the Maryland win [April 10], we just started believing that we are the team that we thought we could be."

Although the fourth-seeded Orange suggested differently - "Navy is the best team in the country," Powell said - the second-seeded Midshipmen are considered underdogs by most lacrosse pundits, who recognize Syracuse's championship experience.

However, Meade, whose team beat Princeton, 8-7, in the semifinals, said the past won't be a factor at all.

"One of the great things about being at the Naval Academy is we don't get to read a lot of the stuff you write," he said. "When you're a Midshipman at the Naval Academy, you have a lot of stuff to think about. We've never been intimidated by much, but playing Syracuse is going to be a great challenge."

Navy junior midfielder Graham Gill said: "Obviously, there are people rooting for us, but I actually don't think there are a lot of people out there who think we can do this. But the people that matter ... they know that we can."

The two teams have met 25 times, but not since 1989, when Syracuse eliminated the Mids in the NCAA quarterfinals. Still, there is a level of familiarity between the teams, which scrimmage each February.

Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk was the associate director of athletics at Syracuse from 1985 to 1988, and Powell and Navy sophomore Ian Dingman, the two top scorers on their respective teams, were teammates at Carthage (N.Y.) Central High.

Powell joked that the whole town of Carthage will be gathered at Keddy's Tavern, a town bar, drinking "Genny Lights and going nuts."

His Orange teammates talked about the respect that they have for the Midshipmen.

"It's great what they've accomplished all year," said senior defender Dan DiPietro, a transfer from Johns Hopkins. "But I mean, we're here, too, and we just don't want to hand it over to them. After the game, no matter how it turns out, we'll shake their hands and wish them the best. But when it comes down to it, we're here for a championship, too."

NOTE: Meade doesn't expect the predicted rain to affect today's game. "We're in the Navy, so we like water," he said jokingly. "We don't think about that. The forecast for [today] is for lacrosse."


Matchup: Navy (15-2) vs. Syracuse (14-2)

Site: M&T Bank Stadium

Time: 2:30 p.m.


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