Lax 4 Baltimore Kicks Off 2003 Final Four Build-up
By Nelson Coffin
The men's Final Four may have finally found a permanent site.
If a two-year trial run beginning with the 2003 championship showcase May 24-26 is endorsed in even close to record-breaking fashion by fans at Baltimore's Ravens Stadium in its first try, the NCAA season-ending event may have found a home for good in the sparkling structure that will make at least 40,000 of its nearly 70,000 seats available for the games. At least that's what officials from the four host schools - Towson, Loyola College, Johns Hopkins and UMBC - and the Lax4Baltimore organizing committee are shooting for on Memorial Day weekend, during which titles in Division I, II and III are earned in the span of three days of lacrosse nirvana. "The goal is to keep the event in Baltimore for at least 10 years," said Lax4Baltimore spokesman Marty Schwartz at a recent press conference. "We are excited about having it here and we want to convince the NCAA that there's no way they should consider holding the event anywhere else."
The move is a gamble by the NCAA, ensuring the lax extravaganza will be held in an off-campus venue for the first time since the organization went to a seeded playoff format in 1971 in Division I. For the record, Cornell defeated Maryland, 12-6, in front of 5,548 devotees at Hofstra that year. It wasn't until 1986 that the idea for the national semifinals and finals being held at the same site on the same weekend (at Delaware) was implemented and the format has proven to be a bonanza for the sport's growth, even though the 18,314 who showed up that weekend for three games would be less than the 18,586 who set a record for the 1996 Division III championship match between Nazareth and Washington College.
Tony Seaman (here with US Lacrosse's Kira Muller) and the Towson Tigers
are among the Co-Host universities for the 2003 Final-Four
Crowds improved along with the addition of the Division II (1998) and III (1992) title games on the same weekend as Division I. Live television coverage begun by ESPN in 1996 has given a certain legitimacy to the event. Yet there may be trouble in paradise, at least if drawing more fans is the ultimate goal of the game's hierarchy. The last two championship weekends at Rutgers averaged just under 60,00. That's down significantly from Maryland's all-time best 73,983 in 1997. Saturday's Division I semifinal doubleheader, typically the weekend's best draw, has broached the 30,000 mark only in 1995 (30,392) and 1997 (30,580), both in College Park.
Millon's Bayhawks played in the state-of-the-art Ravens Stadium last season
The last five semifinal Saturdays have averaged just over 23,000 stick aficionados. Naturally, Lax4Baltimore wants to retain that hardcore group and add others to it. "We've hit a plateau (in attendance) the last five or six years," said Princeton Coach Bill Tierney, whose Tigers dropped a heartbreaking 13-12 overtime decision in the finals to Syracuse last spring in front of 19,076 (59,381 combined) at Rutgers. "Why not try to give the game a jump-start and see how it goes? We look at Baltimore as the heartland of lacrosse. And it's easy to get to. It couldn't be better." Besides, Tierney has had an inordinate amount of success in Maryland. He won three of four title games the Tigers contested at Byrd Stadium in College Park, beating two southern schools, Maryland and Virginia, in the process.
The north's other dominating squad, Syracuse, has an even more enviable record below the Mason-Dixon Line. The Orange posted a 4-0 mark in College Park, dispatching Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland and Princeton in championship encounters. So much for home-field advantage for the southerners, winners of the top D-I prize only once in the last 11 campaigns (Virginia in 1996 at Byrd Stadium). "We've been to those places before, so there is a little bit of a comfort zone," conceded Syracuse Coach John Desko about his team's homes-away-from-home at Rutgers and Maryland. "But if you look at the big picture, Baltimore has so much to offer with the Inner Harbor, hotels and Little Italy all here (within walking distance of the stadium)."
spacious and comfortable seating enjoyed by the club level fans
The biggest picture of all may be one of the reasons the NCAA considered a state-of-the-art National Football League stadium to re-energize the ticket-buying public. A pair of Saco Smartvision video boards, 100 feet wide and 24 feet high, will give the fans breathtaking instant replays of the action on the field. "I've been to some pro football games, and when there's a timeout, the video screens help to keep the crowd's momentum going," said Desko. "And it will be great for the players to see themselves in a replay." Just ask Mark Millon, star attackman of the professional National Lacrosse League champion Baltimore Bayhawks, who played their home games at Ravens Stadium last summer. "It was an incredible, incredible experience," said Millon. "The NFL is the best sports league in the world and Ravens Stadium is one of the best stadiums in the league. The playing surface is gorgeous and the players get way off looking at themselves on the big screen. It also gives the fans something to get extra fired-up about when they see a replay of a great shot."
Tickets for all three days will be $60 for club level and $40 for lower level seating. Order right now through the Ravens by calling (410) 261-RAVE. A seating chart can be found at www.baltimoreravens.com. More information on the weekend festivities can be found at www.lax4baltimore.com or www.ncaachampionships.com.
Photos by John Strohsacker and E-Lax Staff
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