At 5:30pm in Charlottesville, VA a face-off will mark the 32nd battle between lacrosse powerhouses Syracuse University and the University of Virginia. The all-time record between the two programs currently has UVA in the lead 16 -15. This year the Syracuse bus rolls south of the Mason Dixon carrying a team with a 3-0 record while UVA is ravenous to get back in the green after a loss last week to High Point. But one thing that history has proven again and again — when you’re talking about this match up you can throw records right out the window.
The fastest game on two feet. I’ve heard this said many times about the game of lacrosse and in my opinion there is no greater example of this then the 1997 game that took place in the Carrier Dome between the Orangemen and the Cavaliers. I was front row on the fifty yard line to witness the greatest college lacrosse game I have ever seen. It was like being ringside of Ali vs. Frasher. You could feel the excitement as soon as you entered the building on this particular Saturday. There was an intense buzz and electricity in the air that always seems to be radiated when these two rivals clash. But this one was different, the foreshadowing excitement when you saw these two teams come out of the tunnel would make the hair on your arms stand straight at attention.
For years this match up has taken place early on in the season and in many ways marks the true start of the college lacrosse year. We never looked past any of our opponents while I was at Syracuse but with that being said, we always circled the UVA game on the calendar. For the purpose of this article I reached out to a few famous Cavaliers to comment on the match up. The first of which was my friend and UVA alum Johnny Christmas. The multi-year electrifying All-American had this to say about the match up, “it in many ways defines college lacrosse. It signifies the start of the season and was a barometer that helped measure where a team was.” I remember being a junior at SU, standing next to my friend Brett Hughes on the other end of the field, and together we watched Johnny take over one of these epic match ups single handedly for an incredible come back victory.
“You had the green light to go and you knew everyone was watching and waiting to see what happens next”, Christmas said. I think it was this green light, free flowing, play the game like it was meant to be played mentality that both programs share that makes it so special.
In the 1997 game it started with the rosters. One look down either teams roster and you will see lacrosse royalty. UVA had perhaps the most finely tuned attack line in the history of the sport with Doug Knight, Tim Whitely, and Michael Watson. At midfield they had future USA Team Members Jay Jolbert and David Curry. Their defense was led by Chris Sanderson, Tommy Smith, and freshman Ryan Curtis. Needless to say UVA was heavily favored in this match up. Syracuse lost a few key players to the 1996 graduation so the ’97 team was a bit of a mystery. They had some star power in Casey, Marshall Abrams, and Rob Kavovit. Ryan was a Freshman and playing primarily midfield at this point.
After the whistle blew and the first face-off happened what ensued over the course of the next two and a half hours will forever go down in history. Much to difficult to try and capture here in words. SU head coach Roy Simmons Jr. and UVA’s Dom Starsia both went into this game with the same exact approach and it was this mentality that has carried on within the players involved in this match up ever since — “Just play”. There were no designed plays, stalling calls, or penalties for that matter. The refs in fact seemed to be in on the deal and just let the boys be free and play lacrosse. If you’re a player looking for the best lacrosse highlight tape or a coach that wants to show his/her players how to play the game, you don’t need a video editing program or a fancy soundtrack. Just hit play.
EVERY single goal was highlight material. And there were lots of them by the way — 43 total goals were scored that day alone. Each one more spectacular than the prior. Doug Knight flying through the air into the crease, Casey sticking a behind the back on the run from 15 yards, Watson making bounce passes, huge Kavovit lefty box fakes, monster hits, wrap around passes, etc. But the most important part of it was the speed of the game. I remember feeling exhausted as a fan leaving that game. Syracuse won that particular match 22-21.
I remember making the 2 hour trip home back to Carthage just talking my Mom and Dad’s ears off about how incredible that game was. That game moved me. It made me want it even more. That game in many ways showed me what was out there and what I was a part off. It is the first time I ever called lacrosse “athletic entertainment” because that is what it was. It felt like I had just left the greatest rock n roll show ever on earth. I wanted to one day be a part of a respected rivalry like that. In front of thousands of fans “just playing” not thinking about anything other than putting that white rubber ball past the big man in front of the net. Just like the back yard. That style came natural to me.
I encourage all lacrosse players to somehow track down that game and I promise you will be blown away.
Well, Casey ended that game in 1997 scoring 13 points. He played alright, I guess. As I write this he is on a plane to Charlottesville to go support the Orange and witness the 32nd battle between these two incredible programs. He will be posting pictures from the sidelines of the game on our Instagram account. We are pumped up for this to go down! I hope everyone tunes in, its on ESPNU, to watch a high paced match up between two programs with a history like no others. Two programs that play the game the way it was intended.
Green light — GO!