- The Washington Times - Friday, May 25, 2007

NEWARK, Del. — The Delaware lacrosse team is eager to take in the experience of its first final four appearance tomorrow at Baltimore’s M&T; Bank Stadium.

Performing before a crowd that could surpass 60,000. Facing third-seeded Johns Hopkins, one of the sport’s bluebloods. Appearing on national television when most teams are done for the year.

But one of the players’ subtle pleasures would come if the surprising unseeded Blue Hens (13-5) win twice more and force veteran coach Bob Shillinglaw to do the unthinkable: shave off his trademark moustache.

“I think he’s really attached to it,” faceoff maestro Alex Smith said. “It’s a very emotional thing. He wants to keep it. It’s been there for 30 years. I think he’s kind of scared what’s underneath there and what it’s going to look like.”

Shillinglaw — with a moustache, of course — took over at Delaware in 1979 and gradually developed the Blue Hens while building community and financial support for a program that received no scholarships until 1991.

Delaware made an NCAA quarterfinal appearance in 1984 and another 15 years later with only three scholarships of a possible 12.6. Between tournament trips, Shillinglaw interviewed for jobs at Princeton, Johns Hopkins and Harvard but felt his growing program tugging at him each time.

He cultivated local youth programs, using a grass-roots approach that led to more high schools adding the sport and the slow growth of an in-state recruiting base. He kept the Blue Hens competitive despite their financial constraints.

Plus, he enjoyed a prime recruiting location with easy access to hotbeds in Long Island, Baltimore and the District and a school with a well-regarded academic reputation.

“I was always thinking that it would be my luck that I leave and then they decide to [add funding],” Shillinglaw said. “I’ve always felt, and I’ve had so many other coaches say the same thing, that Delaware is a gold mine waiting to be harvested. It has everything that it takes. With the additional support, there’s no reason we can’t consistently be banging on the door.”

Administrators finally bumped up the scholarships about five years ago, and this year’s team is Delaware’s first with a full allotment. The additional support coincided with the Blue Hens’ rise to top-20 regular.

It was also synchronized with Smith’s arrival. The senior, the NCAA’s career leader in faceoffs won (1,020) who this spring established records for draws won (304) and taken (415) in a season, is a remarkable weapon in a sport that has become increasingly possession-oriented.

Shillinglaw collected plenty of talent to pair with Smith. Physical senior midfielders Jordan Hall and Dan Deckelbaum both have 26 goals, and Adam Zuder-Havens (35 goals) leads an opportunistic attack. All three are part of Delaware’s stockpile of left-handers and are among 10 players with at least 10 points for the balanced Blue Hens.

“The biggest advantage for our team is we don’t have one superstar,” Smith said. “Look at Duke. They have Matt Danowski. Look at Cornell. They have Max Seibald. Look at Hopkins. They have Paul Rabil. We don’t have a guy like that. Everybody kind of fills a role and steps up. We’re a real well-rounded team, and I think that’s why we’ve had the success we’ve had.”

The Blue Hens toppled defending national champion Virginia in the first round and have since received a dramatic spike in attention. Delaware and the soft-spoken Shillinglaw were inundated with interview requests this week, another milestone for a program that finally reached a national stage.

“You think about all the hours he’s put in and all the sacrifices he’s made to get this far,” goalie Tommy Scherr said. “It’s a great thing. Every bit of the attention he’s getting, he deserves it. He’s a great coach and a player’s coach. He’s been great for all of us on and off the field.”

Nothing illustrates Shillinglaw’s loose relationship with his players like his moustache ploy. He promised to shave it if the Blue Hens won the Colonial Athletic Association tournament, then delayed it to when they made the final four. After Sunday’s quarterfinal victory over Maryland-Baltimore County, he amended his stance again, demanding a national title before he takes on a clean-shaven look.

“If we win the next two games, I’m pretty sure coach Shillinglaw wouldn’t mind a little sunlight on it in the summertime,” Hall said. “If it’s going to take two more games, that’s another little incentive for us. It’s probably so white it looks like a milk moustache.”

Added Shillinglaw: “If we win the national title, [I’ll get my] head shaved, you name it. I’ll go the whole nine yards. And if we do, I believe every player will be on top of me plucking each hair out of this lip.”

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