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Frank Deford
May 30, 1966
Even in Maryland, where lacrosse enjoys exalted status and local talent is idolized, Jimmy Lewis of New York is hailed as the game's best player
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May 30, 1966

Navy's Star With A Stick

Even in Maryland, where lacrosse enjoys exalted status and local talent is idolized, Jimmy Lewis of New York is hailed as the game's best player

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It was not until he reached Annapolis the evening following the mugging that Lewis saw a doctor. He immediately was rushed to Bethesda Naval Hospital, where initial tests indicated traces of blood in his spinal fluid. "I found out," Lewis reports somberly, "that if ever you get a blow on the head and then you start throwing up that is very serious."

The spinal taps were never so worrisome again, however, and the final diagnosis was a suborbital hematoma, which kept Lewis in Bethesda for five days. When he finally talked his way out he had lost 17 pounds. Then he spent two more weeks in the academy's sick bay. Still weak and tending to dizziness, he did poorly on midyear exams, his grades falling from Bs to Cs. It also was several weeks after practice began in March before he was really himself on the lacrosse field. But he has his grades back up to the Bs now and seems fully recovered, except for the ringing.

"I guess about the only thing Jimmy does wrong is get hit on the head," Bilderback says, smiling, sort of. That has also happened in games, since Lewis is the target of all defenses and is repeatedly knocked down. Most of the defensemen who guard him outweigh Lewis by at least 40 pounds, and everybody else near him gangs up as soon as he gets the ball. Also, playing soccer last year, Lewis got bowled over in a melee when a free kick bounced back. Thereupon someone summarily kicked him square in the head while aiming at the ball alongside.

Lewis became a soccer standout after taking up the game as a plebe solely to win a seat at a training table. (Plebes who are not at training tables are subject to some interesting diversions.) He made the starting soccer team as a sophomore, even though he never became very adept at the tricky art of kicking with accuracy. With his speed and agility, however, he was always a threat. And, as in lacrosse, he was best under pressure. Six of his 15 goals came in six NCAA championship games. As a junior, in the finals against Michigan State he took a pass over midfield, dribbled the ball clear and headed in on the goalie. "I kept thinking," he remembers, " 'Oh, no, I'm going to do it again. I can't kick the thing. I know what to do, and I can't kick it.' " Finally, about 12 yards out, he pulled up and booted it solidly into the corner of the net, just about where most of his lacrosse shots go. It was the only score in the game, and Navy won its first soccer championship. In his three varsity years Lewis has played in about 50 soccer and lacrosse games. Navy lost exactly two of these.

Lewis' only defeat in lacrosse came this April in a game with Mount Washington, the perennial club champions. The Mounties have numerous former All-Americas on their roster, and few college teams can even stay on the same field with them. But in recent years Navy has been so good that it not only has dominated the collegiate field, but has been the best lacrosse team of any class. Since the start of the 1960 season, the Middies have lost only six games—three to Mount Washington, one to the Baltimore Lacrosse Club and two to Army—and have won six straight NCAA championships. An expected win at West Point on June 4—in Lewis' last regular game—would make it seven in a row, a string unprecedented in lacrosse and topped in all collegiate sport only by Southern California's nine consecutive track titles from 1935 to 1943 and Yale's nine in golf from 1905 to 1913.

Bilderback has achieved this record through innovations. He has, for instance, employed football players to the utmost advantage—usually as tough defensemen who have little need for the niceties of stickhandling. One group was called The Bumper Cars. They just ran over people and stomped on them. Navy teams have depth and stamina and enough strength to overpower the traditional Maryland-stocked quick, slick teams, of which Johns Hopkins is the prototype.

In Navy's recent game with Hopkins the Middies took a 9-0 lead, with Lewis scoring twice, and it looked like a clear runaway. But in the third period Hopkins rallied and scored five straight goals. During this spell the Blue Jay fans started singing the school fight song, which does not happen often at intellectual Hopkins. The prospect of beating the national champion kept the fight song ringing for 10 minutes.

But when Navy gets into trouble Lewis usually comes to the rescue. He stopped the Hopkins surge with his third goal just before the end of the third period and added a fourth in the final period. In Lewis' first scoring attempt of the game the Hopkins goalie made a fine stop, but that only served to inspire Lewis to greater effort. Seconds later he darted from behind the goal, beat his defenseman to position and made the score 1-0. In the same period he assisted in Navy's second goal and scored the third on a high backhander less than a minute later.

His final goal was a remarkable over-the-head shot at a time when his defenseman was sure he had Lewis well covered. It was his top scoring day of the season, and Navy won 12-7. Said Hopkins Coach Bobby Scott, "Every-time Lewis had the ball he was a threat to score. He could have had six or seven goals, except that our goalie made some brilliant saves."

Bilderback has gathered a Navy staff of football-like proportions, one that even includes special coaches for face-offs and extra-man situations. He has so many assistants it is not too surprising that one of them turns out to be named Jimmy Lewis, only this Jimmy Lewis is an Episcopal priest who was an All-America goalie for Washington and Lee. Bilderback was the first Maryland coach to recruit heavily on Long Island. This has brought him not only good players, but players of a different breed, and many observers consider that even more significant. In the Baltimore area kids start fooling around with sticks when they are only 7 or 8. At that stage they are not ready for the rugged contact the sport allows, so they concentrate on the showy stickhandling maneuvers. Long Island players, on the other hand, seldom pick up a stick until they reach high school. By then, stronger and more mature, they are thrown into action before they have time to develop fancy stickwork. Consequently, they come to depend on power more than guile. When such players are combined with the big Navy football men, power takes over. The University of Maryland's entire first attack this year is from Long Island, and even Johns Hopkins has begun to recruit in New York.

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