Commentary

Lacrosse returns to its roots in final

Upstate New York teams Syracuse and Cornell will face off for the national title

Updated: May 24, 2009, 11:20 AM ET
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- For years, lacrosse aficionados have been touting the game's nationwide growth. Once a niche sport with hot pockets along the Northeast corridor, the "fastest game on two feet" has sprinted its way across the country, infiltrating the beaches of California, the ski slopes of Denver and even the sacred football grounds of the South.

But for 2009, the game has turned back the clock, taking a ride that Marty McFly would appreciate.

Long before titanium sticks, cool equipment and snarky logos made lacrosse the trendiest sport in the U.S., Native Americans were playing the game in Ontario and neighboring upstate New York. They called it "tewaaraton" and used it to settle disputes and even prep for war. The tradition is honored now by naming the sport's version of the Heisman Trophy the Tewaaraton Trophy.

[+] EnlargeTim Desko
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesTim Desko and Syracuse are headed to the championship game for the program's 16th time.

On Monday, two schools situated smack in the middle of that history will go head-to-head to settle the sport's ultimate dispute.

Syracuse and Cornell, separated by 54 miles, will meet at 1 p.m. (ESPN2) for the NCAA Division I championship. (Adding to the New York state of things here in Massachusetts, LeMoyne College, which is based in Syracuse, and Cortland State, just 30 miles away, will vie for the Division II and Division III titles on Sunday.)

The in-state title game, the first of its kind since 2004, got reporters to thinking about a catchy logo for the title game: the Wegmans Bowl, in honor of the supermarket chain started in Rochester, got some nods, as did the Genny Bowl, in honor of Genesee beer.

The History Bowl might do. Give the old lax heads a chance to educate the nouveau fans on the history of the game. Aside from their geographical ties to history, neither of these schools is exactly an NCAA gate-crasher. The Orange, which made quick work of Duke 17-7 in a semifinal Saturday, has won a record 10 national titles (though the 1990 title was later vacated by the NCAA), including the one that was handed out here a year ago. On Monday, Syracuse will go for its first back-to-back run since Paul and Gary Gait led the charge in 1988, 1989 and 1990.

Cornell, meanwhile, won the very first NCAA crown in 1971, as well as two more in the program's rich tradition that started in 1907.

There is history and there is historical, and in terms of upsets, Cornell mastered the latter Saturday with its 15-6 throttling of Virginia.

This wasn't a Mine that Bird upset. The Big Red were in the national semifinals and the fifth seed in the NCAA tournament. But aside from the fans and alums who have once enjoyed the shores of Lake Cayuga, few predicted Cornell would handle high-scoring Virginia.

No one imagined the Big Red would flat-out flatten the Cavaliers.

"Ever since I got here, no one expects us to beat Syracuse. No one expects us to beat UVa, no one expects us to beat Princeton,'' Cornell senior Max Seibald said. "We don't care. It's never about that. It's about us and what we can do.''

The Big Red are one step closer and in their first title game since 1987 because they did the unthinkable: They rendered the most potent offensive team in the country impotent.

Virginia dumped 18 on Villanova in the first round of the NCAA tournament and 19 on Johns Hopkins in the quarterfinals. Against Cornell, the Cavaliers scored fewer goals in four quarters (six) than they had in each of the first halves of their earlier tourney games. Not only did they fail to mount a charge, they failed to score consecutive goals the entire game.

Cornell stung Virginia early with a 4-1 lead at the end of the first quarter. For the Big Red, which take their offensive cues from the Princeton basketball offense (think patient; really, really patient) that may as well have been a 10-goal margin.

By the time the Big Red scored their final goal, not even the band could keep up. The first strains of "Give our Regards to Davy,'' the school's campy fight song nod to "Give My Regards to Broadway," took a few minutes to get going. Clearly the pep band was happy and bored with this romp.

[+] EnlargeRob Pannell
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesRob Pannell, left, led Cornell past Virginia with three goals and three assists.

"One of the most difficult things in sports is to maintain your patience and discipline on offense when you haven't seen the ball for a long time,'' Virginia coach Dom Starsia said. "[Cornell's] ability to jump out to that early lead gave them the ability to stick to the tempo they wanted.''

But as impressive as this win was for Cornell, the Big Red will still ride the underdog train to the championship game once again. No one casts as looming a shadow as the Orange. Syracuse has the crowded trophy case and has cornered the market on lacrosse name recognition (Gait, Powell) to become the premiere program in the sport.

Two years ago, when Syracuse failed to make the NCAA tournament, staggering to a horrific 5-8 finish, the entire lacrosse world shifted on its axis.

In more traditional fashion, this Orange team rolled over Duke as if the Blue Devils' nine-game winning streak meant nothing. Using a balanced attack -- nine different players scored for the Orange -- and a stingy defense that is the program's best since 1970, Syracuse easily waltzed back to the national title game.

"It's certainly been a roller coaster for four years,'' senior attackman Kenny Nims said. "The Final Four our freshman year, we felt pretty good about ourselves, and then '07 was just a disaster. Then last year, to be part of the team that picked up the pieces and got Syracuse back to where it belongs was really special. Now we want to keep it going this year.''

The school just down the road has other plans.

"Our goal ever since Ohio State came into our place [in last year's tournament] and walked all over us has been one thing,'' Seibald said. "To win a national championship.''

Something clearly will have to give on Monday, when history collides.

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

Dana O'Neil | email

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