Lacrosse can perhaps be best understood by imagining a combination of the bruising bodychecks and fast-moving action of ice hockey and the accurate and intricate aerial movement of a beautifully executed baseball double play.

On the college level, lacrosse has always been easy to understand. Johns Hopkins, Maryland or Cornell usually would win the NCAA title with players from Baltimore or Long Island.

That trend ended two years ago when North Carolina broke the trio's string of eight straight championships. And Coach Willie Scroggs' Tar Heels defended their title last May with a 7-5 triumph over Hopkins.

North Carolina returns five all-Americas and is favored to win its third championship, but don't count out local powers Johns Hopkins, Maryland and Virginia. All three schools are good bets to reach the eight-team NCAA tournament. All three also get regular-season shots at the Tar Heels.

Hopkins is a solid second choice for the NCAA championship. The Blue Jays lost all-Americas Jeff Cook from attack and Dave Black from defense, but Coach Henry Ciccarone (116-14) has a solid group of returnees for his ninth season. The best are attackman Peter Scott (35 goals), goalie Brian Holman and midfielder Henry Ciccarone Jr..

"We lost Cook and Black and some important people up front," Ciccarone said. "We don't have any superstars like we've had the past three or four years. We'll have a more balanced attack this year with the midfielders handling the ball half the time and doing more of the scoring."

Down the road from Hopkins' Baltimore campus is the University of Maryland and third-year Coach Dino Mattesich. The Terrapins were only 8-5 in 1982 but should improve. Attackmen Jim Wilkerson, a first-team all-America, and Tim Worstell are the top Terrapins. Their cocaptain, midfielder Jack Francis, is "one of the best faceoff men in the country," Mattesich said.

Maryland lost its opener Wednesday, 16-13, to Syracuse. Mattesich noted Wilkerson's continuing struggle with cartilage damage in his knee: "Wilkerson's injury hurts us up front because we don't have much depth up front. I don't know if he'll be 100 percent again." Whatever, Wilkerson provided three goals and two assists yesterday as the Terrapins won big at Duke, 25-7.

"Our strength is our defense but we had breakdowns defensively against Syracuse," Mattesich said.

"Lacrosse is no longer a three-team race," he went on. "Twelve teams have a good shot at the title. There are more schools giving scholarships, which means more competition for the top players and the talent spreading out. Players are coming from different places. We've got good players from Annapolis and New Jersey today."

Virginia Coach Jim Adams, another former Blue Jay star, has an excellent team. Goalie J.B. Meyer and midfielders Ott Mohrmann and Scott Gerham, an all-America, are juniors. All-America seniors Mike Caravana (attack) and Steve Byrne (defense) are probably the keys to the 1982 semifinalist Cavaliers. Adams has his youngest squad in his six years in Charlottesville.

Rookie Navy Coach Bryan Matthews has attackmen Rich Wehman and Bob Bianchi--and an opening victory yesterday at home over Washington & Lee, 13-7, as Wehman scored five goals and Phil Skalniak three. The Midshipmen are the only team to qualify for all 12 NCAA tournaments and should extend that to 13.