In an era when "the old college try" sounds hopelessly quaint, lacrosse remains possibly the only sport where the term rings true.
Young men who play the game can aspire to no greater heights than to reach the NCAA Division I championship - as have Johns Hopkins and Duke, which play today for the title at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.
When their college careers end, these players won't be signing multimillion-dollar pro contracts, selling sodas in glitzy TV ads or even competing for Olympic gold.
"This is it - the huge crowds, the circuslike atmosphere, the grandest stage in all lacrosse," said Ryan Boyle, a star freshman on Princeton's 2001 national championship team and a Gilman School graduate. "There's no big-time money hanging over players' heads. You're playing for your school, your teammates and tradition. There's no higher incentive than the glory of those three things."
In that way, lacrosse is a throwback to the 1920s, when college football was king and the National Football League was an afterthought.
"Lacrosse does have that air of going back in time," said Scott Bacigalupo, a St. Paul's School alumnus and goalie on Princeton's 1992 and 1994 national title teams. "I don't want to dis pro lacrosse, but it's somewhat minor compared to making the final four in college.
"When you walk off that field after winning the national championship, you're at the pinnacle of the game. It's pretty well known that you're the best team in the land."
There are two pro leagues - Major League Lacrosse, a six-team outdoor league that includes the Baltimore Bayhawks; and the National Lacrosse League, which fielded 10 indoor clubs this year. Players, many of them stockbrokers and equity traders, earn about $10,000 and suit up on weekends.
"You do it for fun," said Damien Davis, who like Boyle plays in both leagues. But for Davis, who shuttles between games and his job with an asset management firm in Baltimore, the pro game can't hold a stick to his experiences as a starter for Princeton's 2001 titlists.
"Competition is good [in the pros], but in terms of commitment, camaraderie and fan interest, there's no comparison," said Davis, who graduated from Gilman and was twice The Sun's High School Athlete of the Year.
Davis was 11 when he attended his first final four at Philadelphia's Franklin Field in 1992.
"It blew my mind," he said. "The roar was deafening. It wasn't a Super Bowl crowd but true fans screaming their hearts out for their schools, sons and brothers. There was almost a purity to it, and I thought, `This is where I want to be someday.'
"From then on, I aspired to win the national championship on Memorial Day."
Playing in the final four has become "the be-all and end-all for every lacrosse player," said Bill Tanton, senior editor of Lacrosse Magazine. ESPN provides national coverage for a sport seldom seen on TV. Crowds are 10 times the size of many regular-season games. (Last year's final in Baltimore drew nearly 44,000 people.) Fans fill out brackets for the tournament, akin to NCAA basketball's March Madness.
"The final four has become so big that reaching it has become a validation of one's college program, resume or career," said Princeton coach Bill Tierney, who has won six national titles. "You see schools that print, in their brochures and on their stationery, the number of final fours their [lacrosse] teams have made."
Such accomplishments resonate with high school prospects. Ten times, the University of Massachusetts has reached the Division I quarterfinals - no small feat - only to lose them all. More than one scholarship recruit has told coach Greg Cannella, "I like your program, but I'm going to go to Syracuse as a walk-on because I want to make the final four."
But not even the Orange is a sure thing anymore. Syracuse had reached the NCAA semifinals 22 consecutive times before being ousted in the first round of this year's tournament - by Massachusetts.
"The final four is a different animal," said Syracuse coach John Desko, whose team won three of the past five crowns. "It's tailgating and TV coverage and teamwork. It's the epitome of everything these players will ever work for in lacrosse.
"It's our Super Bowl, the greatest memories of our lives."
Nineteen years later, Gary Seivold recalls the breathless innocence with which his North Carolina team played in winning the 1986 crown.
"There was a real pure aspect to what we did," said Seivold, a Gilman graduate who was named the tournament's most outstanding player. "No one was out there trying to shine for a first-round draft pick or a big contract. There were no ulterior motives. We were just playing for each other."
With victory came closure, he said, a finality in a sport well-geared for college: "It felt, in the end, very much like something had been accomplished and completed."