Supposedly, NCAA tournaments are played to determine which team is the best in the nation, but often they merely confirm the preeminence of a school that clearly had established its superiority during the regular season. Only when rankings have been hopelessly jumbled by upsets and erratic performances does a season-ending tournament serve to unscramble things once and for all. That was the case in lacrosse this year, and last week in Baltimore the University of Maryland, which almost did not qualify for the championships, resoundingly clarified which was the best team in 1975 by defeating an equally surprising Navy squad 20-13.
As always, the tournament succeeded in promoting lacrosse. The crowd at Johns Hopkins' Homewood Field was a standing-room-only 10,400. Yet the championships are not overwhelmingly popular with the lacrosse community, which complains that too much of the money the event generates goes to the NCAA, not to the sport.
Furthermore, the tournament makes a shambles of year-end scheduling. Consider this season's finalists. Maryland's commencement was held on May 11. The school's lacrosse players, who otherwise would have started their summer vacations, had to hang around for three weeks for their season to end. At the Naval Academy, players took exams on the morning before their opening tournament game with Pennsylvania, then could not celebrate their 17-6 victory because they had more exams that evening. The Middies' tests did not end until the day they traveled to Cornell for their 15-12 semifinal upset of the No. 2-ranked Big Red. What's more, the exigencies of Navy's athletic budget require that the annual clash with Army be scheduled for the Academy's June Week, when it will draw a big crowd. That meant that Navy had to play the Cadets the day after the national championship.
Nor does the concept of a national tournament seem to have all that much relevance in lacrosse. In the five years the championships have been played, eight of the 10 finalists have come from Maryland. The University of Maryland has appeared in four of the five finals, and the Midshipmen and the Terps are the only two teams that have been selected for all five tournaments.
Maryland and Navy are also the best examples of how confused the lacrosse picture was this year. The Terps did not even win the Atlantic Coast Conference. The University of Virginia did. For what he calls "the good of the game," Terp Coach Bud Beardmore schedules a number of non- NCAA games. As a result, Maryland played only six NCAA games, the minimum number required to qualify for the tournament. The Terps lost two of them, including one to Navy. On the other hand, the Middies had perhaps the roughest schedule in college lacrosse this season. They played every team that appeared in the 1974 and 1975 championship tournaments. The Middies not only lost two of those games but managed to blow two others against lesser opponents, including their season opener to an unheralded small-college team, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Coaching at the Academy has always been an uphill battle for Dick Szlasa, who has directed Navy's lacrosse program for the past three years. As if the recruiting problems of a service academy were not burden enough, Szlasa had to succeed the legendary Bill Bilderback. In 14 seasons at Navy, Bilderback won nine national championships, including an incredible string of eight in a row from 1960 to 1967 when the title was decided by a vote.
Szlasa managed to get the Middies into the NCAA tournament in each of his first two seasons, but both times they were eliminated in the first round. With 16 of 31 lettermen gone, prospects for 1975 appeared to be bleak. When Navy lost to UMBC in the mud to open the season, it marked the lowest point of his career. "We jumped on the bus after the game and the weight of the players caused it to mire in the mud," Szlasa says, possibly passing the buck, since he tips the scales at about 250. "It took two hours to get unstuck. That whole scene really brought us to grips with reality."
Navy followed with three straight wins, then lost to Cornell 16-7 when a twisted ankle forced starting Goalie Bill Mueller to leave the game with the Middies trailing 4-3. A week later they were upset by Princeton 15-14. That loss dropped Navy to seventh in the national rankings, and it needed four straight victories, including a satisfying 10-9 win against Maryland, to pull itself back into tournament contention.
The triumph over Maryland gave the Middies the confidence they needed to blast their way into the NCAA finals, but it also awoke the Terps, who have not lost since. There is no love lost between the two schools, even though Szlasa, like Beardmore, played lacrosse at Maryland. As Commander Jack Renard, the Middies' officer representative, says, "When I went to the Academy, we wanted to kill Maryland and beat Army." The Terps consider 1924, the year lacrosse became a varsity sport at Maryland, the starting date of the series between the two schools, and proudly boast of their 26-22-1 edge against Navy over the ensuing 50 years. Understandably, the Terps choose not to include five unofficial games played before 1924. They lost all of them by an aggregate score of 76-4.
Maryland also had gotten off to a crippling start this season when All-America Attackman Ed Mullen suffered a knee injury in the Terps' opener and was lost for the year. Starting Defenseman Tom Murray also succumbed to a knee injury. To make matters worse, All-America Midfielder Roger Tuck broke the fifth metatarsal in his left foot and had to compete with a metal plate in his shoe. Beardmore played musical lineups as the Terps dropped three straight to the Mount Washington club, Virginia and Navy.