Over 29,000 fans packed Ohio State University's fabled Horseshoe stadium on Saturday, April 19, 2008, to watch their host Buckeyes in action. Though it was only a third of the crowd that swamps the stadium every other fall to view the ferocious football battles against the University of Michigan, the amassed spring audience was nevertheless notable as it set a new NCAA college lacrosse record for regular-season attendance. For a game that is considered America's oldest and fastest growing sport, this latest milestone serves as infallible evidence of lacrosse's growth from a once perceived northeast-niche to a national sport. While the OSU men celebrated their 20-13 win over the University of Denver, two programs that not only helped establish this sport beyond the Appalachian Mountains, but also compelled tens-of-thousands to attend their annual games, faced off near the western shores of the Chesapeake Bay in another historic match-up of their forgotten rivalry.
At one time, success in college lacrosse meant going through Johns Hopkins University and the U.S. Naval Academy. Combined, they have 60 appearances in the NCAA tournament since its 1971 inception, and both came into this April morning game in Annapolis looking to cement their resumes for this year's tournament. Led by 2007 National Midfielder of the year Paul Rabil, Hopkins entered the 2008 season in a familiar position - defending champions. Since, however, they have fallen off course, losing five of six, with that lone victory coming against Maryland at home on April 12.
Navy, conversely, has navigated to unexpected success and were ranked eighth in the nation as they marched onto their home turf at the Navy-Marine Corp Memorial Stadium. Appropriately, the meeting was honored as the 100th anniversary of Navy's first collegiate lacrosse contest, which was, fittingly, against their Baltimore foes.
With each step the Midshipmen were inching closer to their in-state rivals, who have been victorious in their last 33-meetings. This particular losing streak cuts bone-deep for a Navy program that repeatedly used this game to prove they were on par with the most storied program in the sport's history. Similarly, Hopkins typically marked the Navy match-up as a chance to display their physical fortitude against these American-defenders; this historic American Indian tradition was the common link between the skilled Blue Jays and the Midshipmen that sacrificed their lives in combat.
There are always opponents that make a team's blood boil: Hopkins lacrosse has held the University of Maryland in contempt for many years, while Army obviously draws the ire of Navy's force. These blood-thirsty contests transcend sport, but just as quickly as hate streams through a man's veins, respect and admiration for an opponent can equally increase the heart rate.
"Army was the fiercest rivalry, but we always wanted to beat Hopkins," says Harry MacLaughlin, a two-time All-America midfielder for Navy in 1969 and '70. "It was a respectful rivalry."
Dr. Les Matthews, Chief of Orthopaedics at Union Memorial Hospital and All-America Hopkins goalkeeper in 1972 and '73, works only a few blocks from Johns Hopkins' Homewood Field, where any given spring Saturday, a sea of mop-haired teenage boys religiously floods the stands at "the Yankee Stadium of lacrosse," and inevitably spills onto the encircling track, creating a moat three heads-deep. With lacrosse sticks in their grasp, this young Baltimore congregation watches the most celebrated college lacrosse program face-off against whatever team travels to the Hopkins temple, trying in vain to win. To the faces in the stands, a Hopkins victory is imminent, but to the exhausted visages atop the royal blue-and-white home jerseys, the costly price of success is well-known. Matthews can still hear the screams from his former coach and fellow Hall-of-Fame member Bob Scott during practice: "You think that's the way they're runnin' down at Navy?"
Similar antagonizing barbs sweep across Homewood during practices like waves over Ahab's Pequod, as the coaches know the motivation the Naval Academy-trigger holds for players.
Less than thirty miles south of Baltimore's lacrosse altar, a similar, oft-repeated motto circles through the Annapolis campus: "If you're going to have a good year, you have to beat Hopkins."
The rivalry has always captivated the lacrosse community as The Baltimore Sun prefaced the April 4, 1908, inaugural meeting by calling it a game of "great interest" - the three-paragraph blurb was buried at the bottom of page 10. Though it was Navy's first collegiate game, these teams were already quite familiar with each other as the Midshipmen were coached by Hopkins players Frank Breyer and Bill Hudgins.
Hopkins players were highly regarded teachers. Having fielded a team consistently since 1888 and being crowned United States Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association (USILA) champions in 1906 and '07, the Blue Jays were accustomed to winning under Coach William Schmeisser, and did so by a score of 6-1 over the Midshipmen, whose mentor Breyer scored two goals for his Hopkins squad. The brisk 48-degree spring air did little to sooth the stinging loss; yet, with the wind stretching to Annapolis from the north, it seemed the lacrosse godfathers - the Six Tribes of the Iroquois Nation that prowled the pristine fields of Upstate New York with their yard-length wooden lacrosse sticks over two centuries prior - were breathing well-wishes on a rivalry that soon typified college lacrosse.
By 1959, Hopkins held a slight edge in the match-up. The Blue Jays had amassed 23 USILA championships - a baker's dozen more than Navy - and held a two-game advantage over the Midshipmen in the schools' all-time series, 16-14-1. The Baltimore team was at full-mast having not lost a collegiate match in nearly three years, but the tide began to shift when the Annapolis boys arrived at Homewood Field behind first-year head coach Willis Bilderback for another spring engagement.
The trouncing Navy experienced at the hands of Hopkins the previous two seasons was not repeated on this day as the Midshipmen handed the Blue Jays a 13-11 defeat. Hopkins still managed to win the USILA crown, but this served as the beginning of a Navy onslaught.
That '59 game again drew mass numbers to Homewood, which was commonplace by then. In that gaggle of faces were many teens that would soon experience the Hopkins/Navy rivalry as players, similar to George Tracy, who developed his game as a habitual Hopkins spectator and by throwing lacrosse balls off rowhomes in Baltimore's prominent Bolton Hill neighborhood. Tracy enrolled at Hopkins as an unpolished freshman midfielder in the fall semester of 1958; his abrupt exit after that lone semester went largely unnoticed until 1961, when he reemerged as a refined, sophomore Navy attackman who torched Hopkins for four goals.
"I never thought I'd be playing in this game," says Tracy. "I showed [Hopkins goalie and former fraternity brother Jimmy Greenwood] shots he'd never seen before."
En route to a 15-9 Navy victory, Tracy recalls hearing Hopkins Coach Bob Scott bellow from the sidelines "Why'd we let him go?" No one seemed to have an answer to that question or the more pressing issue, how to beat Navy. By this point, the lure of Bilderback and his team was greater than that of Hopkins and their storied past. Navy was in the midst of their "Golden Age", an eight-year run (1960-67) in which they won outright or shared the championship, defeated their in-state rival decisively each year, and brought in the blue-chip high school players that typically went to traditional powers like Hopkins.
"Navy was just too dominant," notes Scott, who amassed 158 wins in 20 seasons - the most in Hopkins history. "They were men - 6'2" 200 lbs. - who could fly. We couldn't beat those guys."
Navy's "Ogres" would pound on the gridiron in the fall with Heisman Trophy winners like Joe Bellino and Roger Staubach, and spend the spring thrashing opponents on the lacrosse field. It's been said that Bilderback, winner of nine national championships from 1960-70, never had a defenseman who played lacrosse before they came to Navy.
The hallmark defense of the Golden Age was complemented by a potent offense, led by Tracy, Pete "The Shot" Taylor, Jimmy Lewis and many others. The winning-addicted Blue Jays were annoyed, however. This was the longest championship-draught Hopkins had experienced and their pep band that cheered, "We Want More!" after each goal suddenly seemed to be yelling into the wind.
"I never thought I'd see the day we could beat Navy a few times," said Scott.
The silencing gale force relented in the mid-60s when the Naval Academy mandated that football players were not allowed to play spring sports. Now that the indomitable force had been "brought back to the pack," the rivalry flared to unimaginable heights, and brought the sport along with it.
On the stick of Joe Cowan, who was heavily recruited by both schools but chose Hopkins over Navy in order to stay close to his Baltimore-home after his father passed, the Blue Jays won a piece of the USILA title in '67 (shared with Navy and Maryland), captured the title in '68 and were co-champions in '69 with Army. In '70, Hopkins, Navy and the University of Virginia were tri-champions.
The popularity of the game culminated in '71 when the NCAA finally recognized the sport and provided a season-ending championship tournament. Today, the annual Memorial Day Weekend tournament fills NFL Stadiums and routinely sets NCAA post-season attendance records as families and fans travel across the nation for the weekend games, all of which was tested thirty-seven years ago when a Hopkins alum-turned-Houston business man chartered the two teams to fly down and play at the Astrodome, then the most modern stadium on the planet.
The plane ride was quiet and uneventful, with Navy occupying the front of the plane and Hopkins in the rear. Once in Houston, Hopkins goalie Les Matthews recalls many being in awe of the turf field and laughing at the numerous attempts to hit the ceiling with a lacrosse ball. The 18,489 in attendance - over 4,000 more than the regular-season record set at a Hopkins/Navy game in Annapolis 1962 - were equally entertained watching Navy beat Hopkins 9-6. The bright Astrodome lights hanging over these two Maryland powerhouses seemingly blinded the record-audience. The sport's defining battle was in the world's grandest venue, but no one saw the rapidly approaching end.
Ranked third in the country, Navy traveled to Homewood on May 10, 1975, with a head of steam having beaten four straight top-ten teams, including Maryland. Hopkins, then the top-ranked team, had used a one-goal loss at Navy in '74 as motivation for their first NCAA Championship run and were intent on flexing their muscle against the Midshipmen during their title defense, which they did 16-11 and continued to do thereafter.
"There have been some incredible games," continues Matthews, himself a Homewood devotee who began seeing Hopkins/Navy games in the mid-60s. "It's amazing to me [that Hopkins] still hasn't lost to Navy."
Hopkins was true-to-form in the latest April meeting, beating Navy 12-5, a respite from their recent meetings, which six of the last eight have been decided by one-goal. The 16,000-plus crowd on hand for the game and the anniversary celebrations was second only to the stadium's lacrosse record of nearly 18,700 set in 2004 against Hopkins, which went to overtime and, according to Scott, "Hopkins had no business winning." Unfortunately, there's no consolation for close games - you either win or lose.
"Playing against Navy was always one of my favorite games because of the intensity and atmosphere," wrote Hopkins midfielder Kyle Harrison, 2005 National Player of the Year, in an email. "We had so much respect for [Navy Head] Coach [Richie] Meade and all the guys on the team because of their ridiculous work ethic and attention to detail."
That admiration resonated louder for Harrison following the 2004 season when he won the Lt. Donald C. MacLaughlin, Jr., Award as the nation's best midfielder.
Over the years, the lacrosse community has chosen to immortalize certain individuals that embodied the spirit of the game through their determination, unselfish play and leadership. This pantheon of players includes Hopkins graduates Jack Turnbull and William Schmeisser, both of whom are namesakes for the annual national attackman and defenseman of the year awards, respectively; in their company is Lt. MacLaughlin, a Navy Class of '63 midfielder who flourished in the "Golden Age" and now is remembered as the award-namesake for his position.
Amid the battle during Hopkins and Navy's 81st meeting on Saturday April 19, 2008, many of Don's teammates, friends and fans in the stands watched the latest honoree hustle across the field and thought of their lost friend.
Hopkins leader Paul Rabil took a few steps towards emulating his former-teammate Harrison on Saturday, registering a goal and an assist, in his bid to win the MacLaughlin award in back-to-back years. There was no greater forum for the senior to make his case than at Navy's stadium, where the presence of Don MacLaughlin and the "Golden Age" lingers in the Bilderback-Moore Navy Lacrosse Hall of Fame.
"[Hopkins Head] Coach [Dave Pietramala] explained to me how special Don MacLaughlin was," continues Harrison, who also won the award in 2005, "which made the award mean even more to me, and made me work that much harder to come back and win it the following year. I've been told that my style of play at Hopkins was similar to his, but it's an honor to even be mentioned in the same sentence as Don MacLaughlin. He was an amazing man."
Indeed, these two seemed to be cut from the same cloth. Each exhibiting an agile artistry in driving to the goal with the stick in either hand, these Baltimore boys were known as split-dodgers and would cut to the goal with a surgeon's precision. Their dominating presence on the field sharply differed from their unassuming demeanor off the field.
"In a crowd, you'd never notice him," says Sonny Glassner, Don's high school lacrosse opponent and Navy teammate. "We had great teams [at Navy] - everybody made some sort of recognition - but Mac stood out. He would do anything for anybody. Nothing was too much."
From his Navy-sideline vantage, Don's younger, pre-teen brother Harry had the best ticket to watch his "Gremlin" brother tirelessly run, scoop up a loose ball and drive to the goal, a scene he must have witnessed hundreds of times on his family's three-acre Catonsville property, where Don taught himself the game by bouncing a ball off their 30' x 30' barn and shooting at a home-made goal constructed from an old swing-set. Though his "Ogre" teammates towered over Don in size, hardly any of them possessed the same skill or determination. He has been called the most complete player by a slew of his Navy teammates, as well as Coach Bilderback.
By his senior year in 1963, the accolades continued to flow in. After winning another USILA Championship, Don was named an All-American for the second straight year and presented with Navy's Sword for Men, a prestigious honor given to the Midshipman of the graduating class that excelled in athletics during his varsity competition. These recognitions were extremely humbling for the ever-grateful Baltimore boy, who also had an All-American soccer career at the Academy, but were the furthest thing from his mind in late-May 1963. His teammates remember how Don would sometimes gush about marrying "the only girl he ever knew," which he did in lieu of attending the North/South Lacrosse All-Star game. Glassner - a fellow "Gremlin" on the field - skipped the game as well, serving as a groomsman to his "old and dear friend."
When Don's wrecked Skyhawk fighter-plane was discovered in South Vietnam on January 2, 1966, his lifeless body was found outside the cockpit on the hill. It is unknown what Don's last moments were like, but his earlier moments have never been forgotten.
"We talk about Donny every time we get together because we miss him," says Tracy, who captained the '63 Navy squad. "It'd be nice if he were here."
Those nostalgic conversations strike up fairly regularly as countless Navy and Hopkins vets, including Coach Scott, Tracy, Glassner, and Matthews, routinely travel from far distances each spring to not only watch their forgotten rivalry thrive once more, but recall an inkling of the past games they played in or saw from the stands as teenagers themselves. Though the rules, players, score and outcome change each year, Navy's timeless determination and strength, tied with Hopkins' eternal polish and confidence, are sewn into the sidelines of this 110 x 60 yard Field of Dreams.
Photos by Jerry Shifflet and E-Lax Staff
April 24, 2008
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