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Lacrosse is a state institution in Maryland, like crab cakes and the late H. L. Mencken. Kids play it on the streets of Baltimore and Annapolis the way they play corkball in St. Louis and stickball in New York. In all the bigger colleges and most of the high schools it is a major sport, often the major sport.
Last Saturday, in sticky, unseasonable 87� weather, 11,500 passionate fans turned out for the Navy- University of Maryland game at College Park. At the same time, only 12 miles away in Washington, a major league game between the locally favorite Orioles and the Senators drew 3,800.
While the game's grip on Marylanders can hardly be explained rationally, it is a fact even the casual visitor cannot escape. On the sprawling, hilly College Park campus, lacrosse-men often carry their sticks with them and toss the ball back and forth as they walk between classes. This is more than just fun; constant practice is necessary to acquire sure control of passing and catching the small, solid-rubber ball with the shallow net attached to the end of a slender hickory stick, and stick handling is by all odds the most important element in the game. Aside from this, lacrosse is simple enough, the object being to pass and carry the ball downfield and fling it past the defending team into a low net that resembles the goal in ice hockey. Much of the playmaking is like basketball: give-and-go, pivot, cut-feed-and-shoot. But lacrosse's standout distinction is the constant vigorous body blocking and checking permissible under the rules. This and the freedom to whack opposing players' sticks when the ball is being passed or carried, gives the game its own sound effects also: the sharp crack of hickory, the dull crunch of shoulders digging into ribs.
Before Saturday's game, Navy's All-America football end (and lacrosse midfielder) Ron Beagle explained why he would risk another season of hard body-contact sport, especially since he still wore a cast from elbow to wrist on his right arm, the result of a football injury: "In the first place, lacrosse is a big thing at Annapolis. This Maryland game means the same to us as Army-Navy in football. It's a game that demands top physical condition; the constant running back and forth is so different from stop-and-go football. I've seen football men complete spring practice and then have to start getting in shape to play lacrosse. I guess you could say it's a challenge."
Minutes later, Beagle was himself demonstrating the accuracy of his remarks. As soon as the game began, it was clear that part of Navy's strategy was for Beagle to fall off his own man and help his teammate carry the Maryland ball carrier, a form of double teaming common enough in other sports. Beagle ran and ran but unfortunately for Navy, the tactic was sadly ineffective. Maryland quickly proved far more skillful at stick handling; their short, crisp passing often bewildered Navy, whose own passes resembled long, soft lobs that were regularly intercepted. At half time, the score ( Maryland 5, Navy 3) was no indication of the Terrapins' superiority. The statistics were. Maryland had taken 35 shots at the Navy goal; Navy had possession of the ball only often enough to take 14. Navy's goalie, Cliff Eley, had managed some remarkable saves to keep the score down, but even he must have wondered how long he could check the law of averages.
Between halves, both the coaches guessed wrong, luckily, as it turned out, for Maryland, not so for Navy. Maryland's Jack Faber had only one bit of advice for his men: "The first five minutes of the second half are going to be the most important in the game. Those guys will be coming back all hopped up. Keep the pressure on."
In the Navy dressing room, Coach "Dinty" Moore was saying: "Just stay with 'em for the first five or ten minutes. Pretty soon that heat out there will slow them down, and then we'll go."
Moore was banking on the Navy team's traditional fitness to counter Maryland's skill. It didn't work. The Terrapins refused to wilt; instead they outran Navy the rest of the way. As one Middie bench warmer put it gloomily: "Every time there's a loose ball, three of them are after it to one of our guys." The final score: 10-5, Maryland.
Few Midshipmen of the 1,100 who asked to attend the game on their own time and at their own expense were inclined to take this particular defeat philosophically, but not just because Maryland would now almost surely go on to the national championship. There was another reason, a symptom of the statewide lacrosse fever. Said First Classman Charles Vickery: "Our rivalry with Army is a friendly thing. With Maryland, it's serious."
FAREWELL TO SPORT