Death Of A Dynasty

Posted by Sal Maiorana •

Democrat and Chronicle, Rochester Rewind May 16, 2011

 

Hobart’s record streak of 12 straight men’s lacrosse national championships came to a halt in 1992 when up-and-coming Nazareth pulled off a semifinal stunner at Boswell Field.

In a season that was filled with so many unforgettable memories, seemingly countless Kodak moments that no one associated with Nazareth’s 1992 men’s lacrosse national championship team will ever forget, one stands alone for coach Scott Nelson.

“After the Roanoke game when we won the championship, my old boss at Rutgers, Tom Hayes, was walking me over to the press conference,” Nelson recalled. “We had to walk from one end of Franklin Field to the other, and as we’re walking past one of the goals, there were two of our players, a half hour after the game, shooting on the goal.”

Marty Kelly, now in his 10th year as head lacrosse coach at Roger Williams University, scored one of the most famous goals in Nazareth history, an overtime marker that ended Hobart's Division III championship run.

The players were Jeremy Hollenbeck and Jim Cornicelli, who’d combined to score five goals that afternoon in Nazareth’s 22-11 blowout of Roanoke.

The season could not have ended any better for the Golden Flyers, but those two guys just didn’t want it to be over, so there they were, long after the gloves and sticks had been tossed in the air in celebration and the trophy hoisted, still out there playing.

“The look on Tom’s face,” Nelson remembered, “I’ll never forget it, and he said to me ‘You’ve really got something going on here.’”

Nazareth had a short-lived stay in this year’s NCAA Tournament, losing last Wednesday to Union College. RIT is now Rochester’s remaining hope and the Tigers, ranked second in the nation with a quarterfinal game coming up Wednesday, appear to be the area’s new top dog in lacrosse with a record of 31-5 over the past two years.

But in the 1990s, Nazareth was not only the area’s best program, it was one of the best in the country, and that fact began to crystallize on a sunny day in Geneva when the Golden Flyers produced what remains – with apologies to the three national championship games they have won – the defining victory in program history.

Nazareth 13, Hobart 12, in overtime.

“The national championship that year was the icing on the cake and we didn’t take (Roanoke) lightly, but we knew we won the national championship when we slayed the giant,” said Nazareth midfielder Ronnie Davis, referring to the victory over 12-time defending national champion Hobart in the national semifinal at Boswell Field.

At that time, Hobart lacrosse was the preeminent program in all of college sports, a team dynasty the likes of which had never been seen, nor likely ever will. Hobart’s 12 consecutive titles ranks second in NCAA history to Kenyon College, which just had its streak of 31 straight Division III swimming championships snapped this year. But Hobart’s run is No. 1 among team sports, well ahead of UCLA’s seven straight basketball championships from 1967-73.

“People today don’t realize how great Hobart was back then,” said Marty Kelly, still the Golden Flyers’ career leader in goals, none of which was bigger than the one he scored in overtime to beat the Statesmen that day.

Yet despite their underdog status, there was a sense in the Golden Flyer locker room that they were going to end the dynasty. The year before in the national semifinal, Nazareth had Hobart on the ropes, up three midway through the fourth quarter, before the Statesmen put on a stirring rally and pulled out a 19-17 victory. Then, a couple months prior to this meeting, Hobart barely survived Naz again, winning 13-12 on a goal with 20 seconds left to play, extending its all-time record against the Golden Flyers to 8-0.

“They were the program,” Nelson said. “They were who we aspired to be. I don’t know if we were ready to beat them, but we thought we could.”

Hobart coach B.J. O’Hara felt the same way. The Hobart grad had taken over as coach in 1990 when Dave Urick left for Georgetown, and O’Hara led the Statesmen to their 11th and 12th consecutive titles, but he knew getting No. 13 was going to be tough with Nazareth standing in the way.

“Oh yeah, absolutely I knew they were coming on (as a program),” O’Hara said. “Even my first year in 1990, I had never seen Naz play because I was up at Dartmouth before I came back here. I was really impressed with how good they were so quickly and we had some real battles with them.”

Davis remembered what it was like in the pre-game warm-up as the big crowd filled in at Boswell, and all he could think was that a large segment of those people were going to be going home disappointed.

A week after the monumental victory over Hobart, Jim Cornicelli and the Golden Flyers celebrated a national championship victory over Roanoke.

“It had been building up and building up, and we knew the road to the national championship would lead through Geneva,” he said. “We felt we were the better team, and we had a lot of incentive going into that game after the way we’d lost the last two to them. We were up for it like you can’t believe.”

That was plainly evident when the Golden Flyers broke out to stunning 6-0 and 8-1 leads.

“The kids were confident, and then we got off to the big lead and that was amazing,” said Nelson. “But they were Hobart, so of course they came back on us.”

And what a comeback it was. The Statesmen were within 12-10 when Bob Wynne cut the gap even more with a laser from the right wing with 34 seconds to go. Naz won the ensuing faceoff, but it was called for an offside violation, giving the ball back to Hobart with 18 seconds left.

Here, Jeff Tambroni took the ball back to the end line and started toward the cage with the intention of dishing off to James Patten, only to have the ball knocked out of his stick by Naz’s Joe Alden. Wynne happened to be in the right spot at the right time, and he was able to scoop the loose ball and whip a shot past Golden Flyer goalie Greg Gebhardt with just three seconds left, setting off a wild celebration.

“We thought our dream was dead,” said Davis, who’d seen this happen against Hobart all too often.

“It was funny, after the game, a couple of the kids were saying ‘Coach we were up 12-10, we had the water and we were ready to dump it on you,’” Nelson said. “That would have been pretty embarrassing.”

Jeremy Hollenbeck, who later became a member of the Rochester Knighthawks Hall of Fame, helped Naz win the 1992 national championship.

But Nelson got his water cooler bath after just 24 seconds of overtime.

“In the overtime they called us for a violation on the faceoff and we never had the ball,” said O’Hara.

Davis started the winning play by passing to Kelly on the left side. He fought his way through a couple of stick checks and ultimately lost control when Hobart’s Mike O’Connor knocked the ball free. However, from his knees, Kelly was able to regain possession and get off a shot that beat Hobart goalie Kevin Banks for his fifth goal of the game.

“I still remember that one pretty vividly,” said O’Hara.

So, too, does Kelly.

“I was fortunate to be able to track the ball down,” he said. “The kid who was checking me did a back check on me and it went forward. A Hobart guy missed it and I was able to scoop it up and shoot it. It was kind of lucky on our part.”

Most of the crowd of 7,286 stood there in stunned silence, realizing that the home team’s 37-game post-season winning streak was over, but the Naz contingent that had made the trip to Geneva stormed the field to celebrate.

“It was pretty neat,” said Kelly. “The one thing that always sticks out in my mind is my helmet broke. The wave kind of came, I was hugging Ronnie and Dan Coughlin, and this push came that I didn’t see coming. My head got stuck under the pile and I had all this pressure on my head and my helmet popped off. Luckily I was able to escape.”

Scott Nelson was Nazareth's first men's lacrosse coach, and he led the program to three national championships in a six-year span in the 1990s.

O’Hara had spent a lot of days in happy locker rooms at Hobart, but that was not one of them.

“It was tough for the kids,” he said. “I told them after the game that we knew this day would come, and they were really lucky to have been a part of something like that. The seniors had won three championships before that. And the guys that were coming back would have a chance to do it again, and they did the next year.”

Indeed, Hobart bounced back in 1993, beating Naz 20-16 in the semifinals before whipping Ohio Wesleyan to win its final Division III national championship before the program moved up to Division I in 1995.

Naz – which played in four straight national title games from 1995-98, winning in ’96 and ’97 – also lost in the 1994 semifinals to Hobart, and the schools have not played since, so the ’92 game remains the only time the Golden Flyers have defeated the Statesmen, and no one from either school has ever forgotten it.

“It was the breakthrough game for Naz,” said Davis. “We knew Hobart was going Division I and we were able to establish ourselves before that happened. That was our pinnacle, and that opened a lot of doors for kids to want to come to Naz.”