Richie Meade isn’t like the rest of us.
Navy fans have had a pretty good run over the last few years. It’s hard not to be happy, what with all the winning and such. That is, unless you’re Richie Meade. Some of the happiest moments for Navy fans over the last decade or so have to be a source of angst for the veteran Navy lacrosse coach.
Not that he didn’t enjoy them just like the rest of us; but over time, our fond memories have become Meade’s curse. Let’s take the 2004 lacrosse season, for example. The Navy team rose to #2 in the nation and reached the finals of the NCAA tournament, while Meade was named national coach of the year. Along the way there were wins over top-10 teams Georgetown, Cornell, Princeton, Army, North Carolina, and Maryland (ranked #1 at the time). For most of us it was a dream season, especially considering how only a dozen teams have ever even appeared in the championship game. Yet for some– particularly those who still think of Dinty Moore and Willis Bilderback when they think of Navy lacrosse– it wasn’t a dream. It was their expectation. To them, that was what Navy was supposed to do. Never mind that in the ’60s, Navy could take a second-string linebacker and turn him into an All-America lax defenseman through sheer athleticism. That just doesn’t reflect the reality of today’s game, yet some people expect the same results. In the 5 years since the 2004 season, Meade’s Navy teams have won 55 games and 4 conference championships, beat Army 7 times, and played in all 5 NCAA tournaments. But what does he constantly hear? “Why aren’t you as good as the 2004 team??” Anything short of that, and some people act like it’s a disappointment.
Having your own success held against you is bad enough, but the suffering doesn’t end there. The crown jewel of the recent Navy fan experience is the football team’s win over Notre Dame in 2007, ending 44 years of futility against the Irish. But as the euphoria from that triumph began to fade, just about everyone’s thoughts turned to Navy’s other inexplicably long losing streak– the lacrosse team’s three decades of frustration against Johns Hopkins. Now that the Notre Dame monkey is off our backs, people said, when will the lacrosse team exorcise their demon?
That’s one question that Coach Meade doesn’t have to answer anymore. Navy defeated Johns Hopkins on Saturday, 9-8 (OT), in front of a lively crowd of 10,128 that came out to honor Navy’s seniors in their final home game.
This one was a long time coming.
Even if the losing streak to Notre Dame made you miserable, you could at least understand it. Notre Dame is a BCS-caliber talent magnet; a financial juggernaut with the resources to bail out the Greek government if it wanted to. The Naval Academy… isn’t. Sure, you’d think that the cosmos would toss the Mids a bone over the course of four decades and allow them to break through with a fluke win, but that’s almost what it would take– a fluke. If you look at the series year by year, Notre Dame was favored in every game. They were the better team. They were supposed to win. Notre Dame coaches weren’t looking over to the Navy sideline lamenting players who got away. The same can’t be said about the Navy-Hopkins series. While Hopkins is certainly one of the game’s elite, having won 9 NCAA titles since Navy’s last win in 1974, it isn’t like the Mids are chopped liver. Navy had a pair of championship game appearances themselves over the course of the streak, along with 23 tournament appearances. Hopkins attracts several of the game’s top players, but Navy has had quite a few All-Americans of their own. Hopkins has been the better program for the last 30 years, but the gap between them and the Navy lacrosse program is far, far smaller that the one that exists in football between Notre Dame and Navy. Since 2000, 6 of Navy’s losses to Johns Hopkins have been by one goal, including 3 that went to overtime. A Navy win might have been an upset, but it could hardly be considered a fluke.
And it wasn’t. Saturday’s game started out about as poorly as it could have, with the Blue Jays racing to a 5-0 lead at the end of the first period. After the whistle sounded to end the quarter, I wrote in my notes, “Oops.” Before the game, I had felt that this was as good a chance as any for Navy to end the streak. In a game between two struggling, .500 teams, I’d take the one with the hot goalie. No keeper in the country is hotter than Navy’s R.J. Wickham, while Johns Hopkins has had a hard time choosing a net-minder of their own. After one quarter, I felt like an idiot. Fortunately, I wasn’t (at least not for that reason). Navy answered the Hopkins outburst with a 6-goal run of their own in the second quarter, turning what looked to be a miserable game into a 6-5 nail-biter at halftime. The spark behind the Mids’ second-quarter explosion were freshmen Bucky Smith and Jay Mann, each of whom scored their first goals of the season after getting the call from Meade to run with the first midfield before the game. Both Smith and Mann were fed on those goals by Andy Warner, who would go on to score the game-winner in overtime. Those two goals from previously unheralded players seemed to underscore the theme of the entire Navy-Hopkins series. While Navy teamwork led to the Mids tallying four assists on the afternoon, all but two of Hopkins’ goals were unassisted, as the Blue Jays instead used their talent and quickness to beat Navy defenders in one-on-one matchups. Hopkins may still be the more talented team on paper, but on Saturday it was Navy doing the dirty work– winning faceoffs, getting ground balls, clearing the ball, and making the big hits– that made the difference in the game.
It was a fantastic win for a team that sorely needed one. On the surface, this was a much more important game for Johns Hopkins, since they’re still fighting for an at-large berth into the NCAA tournament. As far as post-season aspirations go, the game was meaningless to the Mids. They aren’t in the running for an at-large spot, so win or lose this game, they will need to win the Patriot League tournament in order to get in. Still, this is the Hopkins game; the burden that every Navy team has carried since 1974. The way the crowd erupted after Warner’s overtime goal, the way the midshipmen stormed the field, the way Coach Meade struggled to hold back tears after the game– this was anything but meaningless.
The season isn’t over yet. Perhaps this was the performance that the Mids needed to carry them into their game this afternoon against Lafayette in the Patriot League semifinals. But even if the Mids fall short of the NCAA tournament in what has been a down year, to finally beat Hopkins– to put an end to the burden of the streak– ensures that the 2010 season will be a memorable one.