Commentary

Army shows strength in Cuse upset

Updated: May 20, 2010, 12:28 PM ET
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

As often happens after a big win, the messages started to flood Army goalie Tom Palesky's cell phone and crowd his Facebook page.

Tom Palesky
Danny WildTom Palesky kept one of the nation's top offenses at bay.

Just how many Palesky couldn't quite quantify.

"More than I've gotten the entire time I've been on Facebook," he said.

Mixed in with the usual congratulations from friends and family were others, from strangers who weren't really strangers at all, the men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Army lacrosse team stunned the sport on Sunday with its double-overtime upset of Syracuse in the NCAA tournament's first round and stands on the precipice of the program's first Final Four since 1984.

Like any coach, Joe Alberici is trying to downplay the big picture of it all, insisting that perspective will come sometime next month when the season is over, and that in the here and now there is only one concern -- Cornell, the Cadets' opponent this weekend in the quarterfinals.

He's right in the typical sports sense. There is no time to dwell on accomplishments when there is still more accomplishing to do.

But he's also wrong. This isn't happening at just any school, this is happening at Army, where normal is abnormal just about everywhere else.

While the Cadets prepped for their game against the Big Red, enjoying leisurely wake-up calls of 8:30 a.m. compared to their typical 6:30 a.m. buzzer, some of their senior teammates prepped for graduation and others began active duty.

"It's special to put on this uniform," said Palesky, the Army goalie and the latest in a long line of academy members in his family. Twin brother Nick is also a junior at West Point; older sister Katie graduated from the academy in 2009 and is currently at Fort Campbell in Kentucky; and older brother Matt graduated from the Air Force Academy and is currently in Phoenix. "But it's even more special that I have 42 other guys wearing the same uniform as me. It's hard to describe."

Almost as hard to describe is Army's season.

After a horrific 17-2 loss at Hofstra, the Cadets stared at a 3-5 record and perhaps another year without an NCAA tournament bid, a drought that stretched back to 2005.

Instead Army marched, marched on a win streak straight through the Patriot League regular season.

OK, so it was a tentative march -- the Cadets won their next five league games by a grand total of seven goals -- but it planted a seed of confidence that sprouted through the Patriot League tournament, as Army topped Bucknell and Navy to win the NCAA tournament automatic bid, and really spread its wings against Syracuse.

"It was a great win, but they believed they could do it," Alberici said of the 9-8 decision against the Orange. "If you saw the reaction, they were excited afterward but, not to sound arrogant by any stretch, it didn't blow us away as much as it seems it did everyone else. It's not because these guys are arrogant or think they're something they're not. There's just a quiet confidence about them."

Still, this is the sort of win that could go down as program-shaping. In basketball parlance, this is Northern Iowa beating Kansas or Richmond taking down defending champion Indiana in 1988.

Army has a lacrosse history, but Syracuse is lacrosse history.

The Orange own 61 tournament wins, Army 19 tournament appearances.

Syracuse packed a No. 2 seed and the last two NCAA championship trophies for this game, while Army hadn't won a tourney game since 1993.

Jeremy Boltus
Danny WildJeremy Boltus and the Cadets are focused on keeping their season alive.

"My mom works at the university," said Army's Devin Lynch, who scored the game winner and hails from Skaneateles, N.Y., just outside Syracuse. "She got a lot of phone calls and people told her how proud they were of us. I think we're coming out of this win with a lot of confidence, but we also want to stay humble."

With good reason.

These Cadets believe they are much more than a one-hit wonder.

It is one thing to pull off the improbable upset, to be Northern Iowa. It is another to parlay that victory into something really special, to become George Mason.

One more victory earns Army that right.

But to get to the program's third Final Four since the inception of the NCAA lacrosse tournament in 1971, the Cadets will have to rid the bracket of Cornell, the other team from last year's title game.

The Big Red took a 12-11 overtime win from Army earlier this year, rallying with a five-goal run to claim the victory.

Since then, the two have traded mojo.

Army, which trailed Syracuse 8-6 to start the fourth quarter, is the team that likes to come back. Cornell is the team that likes to make things agonizingly entertaining for its fans.

The Big Red survived a late six-goal comeback from Princeton during the regular season but blew a four-goal lead against the Tigers in the Ivy League championship game and then coughed up nearly all of their seven-goal advantage against Loyola in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.

"I guess it's an advantage, but we're not going out there to get in a hole and prove we can come back," junior attackman Jeremy Boltus said. "Our goal every game is to get a lead and build on it."

And in the process, build on the Army lacrosse run this season, a run that means a lot to an awful lot of people.

"Based on the e-mail traffic, this has been significant to the whole Army family," Alberici said. "The people that wear that jersey and carry that flag, a lot of people relate to you. But we're hoping our best is yet to come."

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball and other sports for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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