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June 20, 2014

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Don't Assume - Remember '78's "Miracle in the Mud"

by Bill Tanton | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter

This column originally appears in the July 2014 issue of Lacrosse Magazine - start your subscription by joining US Lacrosse today!

Stan Cockerton was stuck in rush hour traffic in Toronto, a good time to return a phone call.

"It's amazing when you think about it," said Cockerton, the president of the Federation of International Lacrosse, which alongside US Lacrosse will stage next month's FIL World Championship in Denver. "Thirty-eight countries are coming. That's fantastic! We only had four countries when we played our game."

Our game?

I knew which game he meant. Lacrosse diehards of a certain age — like, 50 or so — would know. But it was such a long time ago. How many today even know about the game? So much of the present lacrosse generation wasn't even born.

And yet that game, the championship match played in the mud in Stockport, England, between the U.S. and Canada in 1978, is historic. It was the greatest upset in lacrosse history. It taught me a lesson I've applied many times over the years, often in sports other than lacrosse.

Consider that the U.S. national team that year was coached by Hall of Famer Richie Moran, and featured an abundance of players from Moran's NCAA championship teams at Cornell in 1971, 1976 and 1977. In addition, when Team USA and Canada previously met in round-robin play, the U.S. won in a 28-4 blowout.

Four days later, with the world championship on the line, Canada beat the U.S. 17-16 in double overtime. Cockerton scored the game-winning goal. It became known as the "Miracle in the Mud."

So now here was Stan, 36 years later, stalled by traffic, his mind full of details concerning Denver 2014, and he is being asked for the zillionth time: How in the world could a bunch of Canadian players be annihilated 28-4 by the Americans, and then, a few short days later, turn around and beat the same team?

"We were not that surprised," Cockerton insisted. "We put that first game behind us. We had a bunch of winners on our team. Most of them were box lacrosse players, but they were all champions in the box. Plus, we had some who had played field lacrosse in the U.S."

Cockerton was among them. He led the nation in scoring when he played at N.C. State. He had six goals and three assists in the 1978 final and average nearly seven points per game for the tournament. Mike French, a great All-American at Cornell, was right there with Cockerton. Other notable NCAA-tested Canadians included Johns Hopkins' Dave Huntley and Hobart's Jim Calder, brother of current Johns Hopkins athletic director Tom Calder.

These mainly were box players who were resisting their own culture. Some in Canada viewed them as traitors for switching to the field game. They were not nearly as celebrated as today's border-crossers, including Cockerton's son, Mark, now an outstanding player at Virginia.

But on the day when it mattered most, they simply were lacrosse's world champions.

Never since then have I considered any game a sure thing.

"In Denver this year," Cockerton said over the blare of automobile horns, "I hope the fans see how well teams from countries like China and Mexico are playing. Don't assume the U.S. and Canada will be in the gold medal game. The Iroquois have a very good chance if they get possessions. Like you say, they have to play the game."

We all should realize that after what happened in 1978.


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