- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 1, 2004

BALTIMORE — Yesterday’s NCAA championship game was supposed to be Navy’s opportunity to represent all the armed services on Memorial Day on the biggest stage in men’s lacrosse.

It had all the markings of the culmination of a Cinderella season, a feel-good story of future soldiers staring down one of the sport’s most hallowed programs and forcing it to fight to the last for a championship.

All those expectations came to pass, and the only thing that could have made it better for the Midshipmen would have been a victory.

The second-seeded Mids dropped a thrilling 14-13 final to fourth-seeded Syracuse but were part of a classic, back-and-forth title game not soon to be forgotten by the 43,898 at M&T; Bank Stadium.

“I think several years down the road when these young guys have more experience and really understand, they’ll look back on this day and realize this was a tremendous experience for them, win or lose,” Navy coach Richie Meade said. “We thought coming into today that we weren’t the little brother getting a pat on the head. It was a great story, but we have a great lacrosse team, and we expected to compete and we expected to win.”

They nearly did. The Mids (15-3) held a one-goal lead with five minutes to play and had a chance to tie it in the closing seconds, but Syracuse’s Kevin Dougherty knocked the ball away from Navy’s Graham Gill to secure the victory.

“It was what everyone dreams a championship game could be like,” Navy midfielder Ben Bailey said. “‘Cuse had a great game, and they made some mistakes and we made some mistakes, but overall it was great execution by both teams. With 27 goals from two teams, that’s a heck of a championship game.”

Mike Powell, the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, had a goal and five assists for the Orange (15-2), who won their third championship in five years and ninth overall.

Ultimately, the Orange couldn’t end the Powell Dynasty without another title. Powell followed his talented brothers, Casey and Ryan, to Syracuse and proceeded to carve out his own legend. He finished his career with a program-record 307 points, including the game-clinching goal with a minute left to dash the title hopes of the tournament’s sentimental favorites.

“We were playing a lacrosse team,” Powell said. “Some people took it a little too far. We weren’t playing to beat our country. We weren’t playing to beat the Naval Academy. It was just another opponent. We didn’t view it as unpatriotic. We viewed it as a national championship game.”

The Mids refused to make it easy for the Orange. Spurred on by junior Chris Pieczonka’s dominant 20-for-28 performance on faceoffs and sophomore attackman Jon Birsner’s two goals and three assists, they hung tight in a game that featured 10 ties.

Navy took a 12-11 lead with 5:40 remaining when defensive midfielder Clipper Lennon took reserve goalie Colin Finnegan’s clearing pass, raced halfway down the field and fired it past Syracuse goalie Jay Pfeifer (15 saves), but Syracuse’s Danny Brennan claimed the ensuing draw to set up Brian Crockett’s goal on a rotation play less than a minute later.

Brian Nee scored at 3:37, but Navy had possession in the final two minutes with a chance to tie. However, Navy freshman Billy Looney’s errant pass dribbled to midfield, where it was corralled by Nee. He darted downfield, then fed Powell for a 14-12 lead. Navy then got a goal from attackman Ian Dingman with 40 seconds left before Dougherty’s game-saving play.

Finnegan was called upon with 8:01 left and the score tied at 11-11 when first-team All-American goalie Matt Russell left the game with a separated shoulder.

It was almost the perfect cap to a season no sane pundit would have predicted. The Mids were coming off a 6-7 season and hadn’t won a postseason game in 15 years but got rolling with a win at North Carolina in March. Navy proceeded to pick off the likes of Army, Georgetown and Maryland before grinding out defeats of Cornell and Princeton to reach the title game.

“I feel like we elevated the program to where people wanted it to be,” Meade said. “There were a lot of people in those stands watching Navy lacrosse play for the national championship, and I think that’s what people want. Now it’s our job to try to keep it there, and that’s not going to be easy.”

Added Bailey, who will report to Pensacola, Fla., for flight officer training later this week: “I don’t plan on playing any more lacrosse after this, but none of the seniors have any regrets. We put Navy back on the map.”

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