With 4:10 remaining in the first quarter of the NCAA lacrosse championship last week in Providence, Johns Hopkins coach Don Zimmerman called a time-out. His top-ranked team trailed Syracuse 3-0 and, worse, was getting outhustled, outshot and outsmarted. At that very moment most of the 15,000 fans at Brown Stadium had to be thinking that venerable Hopkins—winner of five official and 35 unofficial national titles—was in for an Orange crush. Syracuse, after all, had averaged 15.5 goals per game during the season and had Tim Nelson, the leading career scorer in the history of college lacrosse, on its side.
But Zimmerman wasn’t about to panic. The week before, the Blue Jays had overcome a 5-0 deficit against Virginia in the semifinals. What fiery words did the coach spout at his players? None. He just told them to relax and be patient. ” Syracuse got a couple of those goals on the transition,” Zimmerman said later, “but I wasn’t concerned. We knew Syracuse would pressure our offense on the perimeter, so I told the guys to go to the goal, and they did.”
And how. Hopkins responded by ripping off 10 unanswered goals en route to an
11-4 triumph. The Orange didn’t get their fourth goal until the final minute of the third quarter. Sparking the Jays’ rally were Del Dressel, who had two of their first four goals and finished with a hat trick, and Gary Matthews, who won 12 of 18 face-offs. However, the real Hopkins heroes were goalie Larry Quinn, the defensemen and the midfielders who shut down the Syracuse attack. Despite their ferocious start, the Orange turned out to be lemons. Their four-goal output was the lowest in the 15-year history of the championship game, and the team’s lowest since 1979.
Although Nelson assisted on three of the Orange’s four goals, he was kept well in check by the Blue Jays. As a crease attackman, Nelson likes to set up Wayne Gretzky-like behind the net and feed teammates breaking toward the goal. Trouble was, time and again his teammates couldn’t shake the tight-checking Hopkins defenders, which meant that Nelson was left with the option of taking a low-percentage shot or forcing a low-percentage pass. Speaking about the Jays’ defense, Brad Kotz, Syracuse‘s two-time All-America, said, “We were worried a lot about what they were going to do and didn’t concentrate on playing our own game.” Indeed, Quinn had to make only 13 saves all afternoon.
Several of those shots came from point-blank range, but Quinn, the Division I Player of the Year last season, held his ground. “In my craziest dream I shut them out,” said Quinn afterward. “Going into the game I did not project how many goals I would give up, but I was hoping to hold them to seven.”
In retrospect, if any team was going to shut down Syracuse, it was the Blue Jays. In the last two years, Syracuse has lost just three of 32 games, all of them to Hopkins: 13-10 in the 1984 championship, 8-6 early this season and, of course, the ’85 title game. The Orange had defeated the Jays 17-16 for the 1983 championship by coming from seven goals behind in one of the most thrilling college games ever. Hence, for a lot of lacrosse followers, Saturday’s rematch was an eagerly awaited rubber game. “They’re talking revenge,” said Zimmerman on Friday, “but we’re talking pride in retaining the title.”
Unfortunately, for the first time since these two schools became the sport’s dominant teams, the game failed to live up to expectations. “There’s no explanation,” said Syracuse coach Roy Simmons Jr., who was a midfielder on the Orange’s 1957 team, which went undefeated and included Jim Brown. “We played our worst game of the year, and they played their best game of the year.”
But not until there was 4:10 to go in that first quarter.