May 20, 2014

Glory Days: Syracuse-Johns Hopkins '89 Title Game One for the Ages

As told to Gary Lambrecht | | Twitter

A pair of future Hall of Famers squared off in the 1989 national title game, with Gary Gait and Dave Pietramala going head-to-head. (Syracuse Athletics)

Lacrosse Magazine gathered stories of NCAA tournament lore, straight from the mouths of champions, as part of our May 2014 edition. Extended versions appear here. Don’t get the mag? Join US Lacrosse and its 415,000-plus members today to start your subscription.

Syracuse 13, Johns Hopkins 12
Byrd Stadium, College Park, Md.

When Johns Hopkins met Syracuse at Byrd Stadium to decide the NCAA title in 1989, the air was thick with anticipation. One of the sport's fierce rivalries was in full bloom, and a boisterous crowd of 23,893 — the largest ever to attend a lacrosse game at the time — was eager to see the next chapter unfold. An emerging sports network, ESPN, televised the event.

The Orange had come of age under coach Roy Simmons Jr. by beating the Blue Jays on Memorial Day in 1983. Johns Hopkins returned the favor in the next two title games and won it all again in 1987 with a young star named Dave Pietramala, who would become the most celebrated defenseman in the game

In 1988, a sophomore and budding superstar named Gary Gait had helped Syracuse win its second national championship.

In 1989, they clashed on center stage.

Gary Gait

I was a kid from Western Canada, clueless about the history of the game. But I remember thinking how cool it was to be in that great atmosphere. I was just a kid with a lot more lacrosse games in front of me. I didn't really understand anything about the culture here. The year before that, I thought the crowd was big and loud at Rutgers. But the crowd in College Park was another level.

We had a ton of great athletes who stepped up to win lots of one-goal games that year. We were an up-and-down team that wanted to take a hundred shots and outscore the other team. I don't think anybody really won the matchup between me and [Pietramala]. But he got me when I had the ball at the end, and the ball went back to them. Matt [Palumb] was always a gamer for us. He sure was that day when it counted.

The Blue Jays, trailing by two, forced a huge turnover with 2:20 left, and John Wilkens made the Orange pay by firing a shot past goalie Matt Palumb to break Johns Hopkins' fourth-quarter scoring drought and make it 13-12. Then, in a wild sequence, Pietramala made a great play off the wing to control the ensuing faceoff, only to watch the Blue Jays lose possession.

The Orange called timeout with 48 seconds left. Most in the roaring crowd at Byrd probably expected to see one more Gait-Pietramala confrontation, and that's what they got.

Dave Pietramala

I was a game-day captain, and I remember coming down the old steps at Byrd Stadium. A lot of crowds that time of year are loud, but there was a different feel to it this time. They were freewheeling and free-spirited. We were the disciplined team that was all about structure with Coach [Don] Zimmerman. They were more talented than us.

Glory Days

LM's stories of NCAA championship lore

* 1989: Syracuse-Johns Hopkins men
* 2005: Northwestern-Virginia women

I remember going into the huddle after they called timeout. I looked at Don Zimmerman and said, "I want to cover the ball." And he just said, "OK." Gait tried to take me right-handed, and then he rolled back. I went over his head [with a check] and knocked the ball to the ground.

In our huddle after we got the ball back, we called a play that was called "Nine O'Clock." Matt Panetta got the ball to Jeff Ihm behind the goal and he found John Dressel after he'd made a great cut.

We got the shot we wanted, but it hit Palumb and that was it.

I walked off the field feeling distraught that we lost, but I also felt I had nothing else left to give. I didn't realize right away that it was a turning-point kind of game for our sport, but that game had everything. It was on TV. There was a record crowd and two powerhouse programs. It was North vs. South. The Gaits would become institutions in the game. There were seven first-team All-Americans on the field. There was drama. It went down to the wire. What more could you want?"

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