At Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore national championships in lacrosse are almost as inevitable as final exams. The school has won or shared 30 titles, the last one coming way back in 1974. Now the Blue Jays are making an impressive bid for their 31st. Last week at West Point they outlasted Army 13-10 to remain the only unbeaten (8-0) college lacrosse team in the nation and to keep a firm hold on their No. 1 ranking.
Curiously, 1975 was supposed to be one of those off years when Hopkins would finish perhaps as low as fourth in the country. For openers, 11 seniors had graduated from last season's championship team, including three-time first-team All-Americas Jack Thomas and Rick Kowalchuk, who had dominated the Blue Jays' offense in recent years. To make matters worse, the team's only returning starting defenseman, Dennis Gagomiros, tripped over a blade of grass in a preseason scrimmage, tore ligaments in his left knee and was lost for the season. And worst of all, Bob Scott, who had directed Hopkins to seven national titles in the past 20 years, had given up coaching to devote all his energies to being athletic director.
Despite all that, most experts, including 1974 Co-captain Thomas, feel this Blue Jay team, which starts only one senior, is already better than last year's. Just about the only person not startled by this turn of events is the new coach, Henry (Chic) Ciccarone. He has evinced about as much surprise over his team's superb play as most people display over the arrival of their morning newspaper, even though he earlier had mumbled something about this being a rebuilding year. Perhaps that was just a little Ciccarone chicanery.
"People kept telling me, 'You've got a tough act to follow,' " he says. "An easy act to follow wouldn't be that much of a challenge or that much fun. It's no fun to go out there knowing you're going to win."
If that is the case, then Ciccarone is in danger of becoming bored. The young Blue Jays are beginning to look invincible with their combination of excellent goaltending, a three-pronged attack and good old-fashioned teamwork. Goalie has been a problem position for most teams in lacrosse this year, since only Virginia and Hopkins among the major colleges have returning starters. Hopkins Goaltender Kevin Mahon, a skinny Irishman nicknamed The Elf, is a sophomore and did not become a regular until late last season after the Blue Jays had already lost twice. They upset Maryland in his first start and have not lost since. In Hopkins' most impressive performance this year, a 16-9 road win over No. 2-ranked Cornell, the Blue Jays scored on 16 of 34 shots, while Mahon allowed the Big Red just nine goals on 59 shots.
The Hopkins attack of junior Franz Wittelsberger, sophomore Richie Hirsch and freshman Mike O'Neill is almost perfectly balanced and plenty prolific. Against Army, they combined for 11 of the Blue Jays' 13 goals. Of the trio, O'Neill, a prize recruit from Massapequa (N.Y.) High School and one of 11 children, has been the most surprising—even to himself. He looked unimpressive during preseason practices and did not expect to start until midway through the schedule. "I was trying too hard," he says. "Then the coaches took me to one side and told me that I was going to start our opener with Virginia. And they also let me know that they were going to go with me all year. I relaxed. I guess I just needed the security." O'Neill scored five times in his debut against the Cavaliers as Hopkins won 10-9. He also had five-goal games against Cornell and Denison.
It was Wittelsberger who had the five-goal day against Army, and it is he who has been what Assistant Coach Jerry Schnydman calls "The Man" for Hopkins all year. At 6'2", 210 pounds, Wittelsberger is a leviathan among attack-men. Lacrosse is a contact sport, but most lacrosse players are not prepared for the kind of contact Wittelsberger makes. In the Virginia game, Cavalier Goalie Roddy Rullman ventured out of the crease with the ball and took a hit from Wittelsberger. Rullman went to the hospital with a cut lip and to have a possible concussion checked out, Wittelsberger played on and Hopkins came from behind to win in overtime.
With Hopkins leading 8-6 midway through the third quarter at West Point, Wittelsberger scored two unassisted goals in 30 seconds by muscling his way through the swarming Army defense for point-blank shots. In the fourth period, the aggressive young Cadets had rushed back to close the score to 11-9 when Wittelsberger took the ball in a corner at the Army end of the field with 3:23 to play. He bulled past the Cadet defenseman covering him and ran right over Goalie Jose Olivero, who had unwisely stepped out of the crease, before throwing in the goal that sealed the game. It was his 31st score of the season, and he leads the team with 48 points, three more than Hirsch and six more than O'Neill. "You can put two or three men on Wittelsberger and they just bounce off him. He can dominate a game by himself," said Army Coach Al Pisano.
The rest of the Blue Jays have backed up Wittelsberger's punishing individual maneuvers with unselfishness and precision passing. "On this team everybody puts in his two cents," says Billy (Bread-head) McCutcheon, a senior who runs on the second midfield and has a chance to be the first player to appear in four straight national championship games. "Sometimes we're almost too unselfish," says Ciccarone. "We make one too many passes."
Ciccarone feels that this year's team is more closely knit than last season's, and even Scott does not hesitate to point out, "The players admit they're enjoying it more this year than last. Chic has a quick sense of humor. He is able to drive his players awfully hard, which he most certainly does, and still have them enjoy themselves." "I look forward to practice," adds Wittelsberger. "It's like a party every day."