'They're Playing for a Bigger Cause'
For Mids, Real Work Begins After Championship Game
By Christian Swezey
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, May 31, 2004; Page D01
BALTIMORE, May 30 -- Navy sophomore goalkeeper Matt Russell has to be at work Tuesday morning regardless of what happens in the Midshipmen's NCAA lacrosse championship game today against Syracuse.
And it's an early morning, too. Russell has a 4 a.m. flight and will spend the next three weeks aboard the USS Kennedy, stationed in Florida.
It is that way for many of Navy's players, especially the seniors. The No. 2 seed, Navy (15-2) plays for the title at 2:30 p.m. at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. Senior midfielder Ben Bailey has to be in Pensacola, Fla., to start flight school on Friday.
"It's that way for a lot of guys, most of us get our deployments right after commissioning week," and that was last week, Bailey said. "I haven't even packed yet. It's been so busy. . . . But this [tournament] is everything to me right now. If I get in trouble, I get in trouble."
Navy is aware of its obligations, both military and otherwise. Clint Burke, a starting defenseman on the 1999 NCAA tournament team, is a Navy SEAL, and he flew back from Nigeria to speak to the team before its 8-7 victory over Princeton in the semifinals on Saturday.
Part of his speech included his telling them about being in an operation the night before the war in Iraq started.
Every player also has a letter in his locker outlining what Memorial Day means and about the dedication of the World War II memorial in the District this weekend. And they likely will be led onto the field today by a Marine carrying a flag that flew over a military base in Afghanistan. The flag was dedicated to the Navy lacrosse team by a former midfielder stationed there.
In all, former Navy lacrosse players have won two Medals of Honor, 32 Navy Crosses and 50 Silver Stars.
"They're playing for a bigger cause," Syracuse Coach John Desko said. "We've got to be ready to pull out all the stops. . . . They're certainly going to have the home-town advantage. We're used to playing in front of big crowds, but they usually are wearing all orange. I would expect the opposite [today]."
Said Syracuse senior all-American attackman Michael Powell: "We're viewed upon as the bad guys. [Midfielder Steve Vallone] just read an article about Navy. . . and he said, 'Geez, I almost want Navy to win after reading this. Almost.' "
The game could be a momentous one in the academy's history. Navy last won an NCAA title in 1964, in men's soccer, and has won five overall. It won men's fencing titles in 1955, 1956 and 1962, and an outdoor track and field title in 1945.
The lacrosse team won 17 national championships, though none since the NCAA tournament began in 1971. Navy last advanced to the title game in 1975; its last U.S. Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association title came in 1970.
Navy will need its best effort against Syracuse (14-2). The Orange has been to the title game in five of six years under Desko. Powell (46 goals, 37 assists) likely will be named a first-team all-American for the fourth straight year when the team is announced today. He would be the first player in school history to win that honor four times.
The teams have not met since the 1989 NCAA tournament, an 18-11 Syracuse win. They did, however, scrimmage in February.
"Being a midshipman at the Naval Academy, there is a lot of stuff going on," Navy Coach Richie Meade said. "They're not intimidated by much."
Navy is the first team to play in the championship game after finishing with a losing record the previous year since Towson did it in 1991. The Midshipmen prefer to play an up-tempo game, yet won in the quarterfinals and semifinals even though their opponents slowed down the game.
"Navy has great team speed," Syracuse midfielder Steve Vallone said. "We're not going to run-and-gun and throw the ball all over the place."
One thing is certain regardless of the outcome.
"The best part is that we get to play together a little longer," junior midfielder Graham Gill said. "We get to spend the whole weekend as a team, before we go wherever we have to go."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company