What is the best lacrosse game ever? I took to Twitter to find out.
Awhile ago, I asked a simple question via tweet: What are the best three lacrosse games you’ve ever seen?
It is worth mentioning that I generally assume most of my tweets will be ignored. That’s quite a fair assumption since I generally tweet things full of typos, and usually they make no sense. In some cases, I maybe get a reply or two, but this particular question had a lot more responses than I expected: more than 100 replies, 250 votes, 155 unique games.
But this is not a post about a tweet. This is a post about those replies. As the relies came in, some common themes started emerging, and it became clear that what defined a great game lived up to the old saying, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
The most common themes of what made the best-ever lacrosse games? Playoffs and overtime. There was also weather, first exposure to lacrosse, or just good lacrosse. There were personal connections either as a player or a son/daughter/brother/sister/dad/uncle playing in it. In a few cases, the players from some of the best remembered games chimed in, even on the losing side.
Now, it is vey important to note that this is by no means a scientific experiment, and the sample size is incredibly small. But if confirmation bias has taught us anything, it’s that this list feels right. Since it was from my personal Twitter account, I need to note that most of my followers are some combination of Syracuse fans, box fans, or at a minimum from the Northeastern U.S. and Southern Ontario. I will say that likely skews the voting towards teams that are from those areas. Should the Mid-Atlantic, BC, or other crowds weigh in more, this list may shuffle a bit. But anecdotally from conversations, these games repeatedly come up. Feel free to chime in with some picks of your own!
So, what won?
What Is the Best Lacrosse Game Ever?
#1: 2009 NCAA Men’s DI Championship – Syracuse vs. Cornell
This game always comes up when people mention great games. But also, lets be honest for a moment: this was a relatively slow game for the most part. What is rarely brought up with this one is the context of the entire weekend. Syracuse and Cornell had both embarrassed Duke and Virginia, respectively, in the semifinals games two days prior. That set the stage for “which team that looked unbeatable will actually lose?” You knew going into it that it would be a good one. But those offenses slowed way down, and it was turning into Cornell’s game. But despite the heat on the field in late May, Syracuse staged a comeback in what became not only some of the most unlikely four-and-a-half minutes of lacrosse, but easily the craziest 30 seconds.
It starts by Stephen Keogh slipping a pick and having a chance at a doorstep shot to tie the game. In what was nothing short of unlikely, the pass from Kenny Nims goes a shade high, Keogh can’t catch it, and the ball sails out of bounds. All Cornell had to do was clear. And then everything from that point on made less sense than the thing before it.
This epic game also had one epic video made for it:
#2a: 1989 NCAA Men’s DI Championship – Syracuse vs. Hopkins
A true classic. This was one of those games that was just legends everywhere, and it contributes to its lore as one of the best lacrosse games ever. For those who were old enough to see this live, it probably stands out as the best NCAA Championship game ever, and for good reason. This was the second meeting between the two teams, the first being a Hopkins 14-13 win at Homewood. But this was the game full of legends and huge names. Syracuse had Paul and Gary Gait, John Zulberti, Pat McCabe, Matt Palumb, and Tom Marecheck. For Hopkins, Matt Panetta, Quint Kessenich, Dave Pietramala, Bill Dwan, Brendan Kelly, and Brian Voelker to start. Maybe you’ve heard of a few of them?
This game itself had just about everything. It was high intensity, back and forth action, with players taking risks you never see anymore. When was the last time you saw a goalie slide to ball to double several yards along GLE with a guy on the crease? Well, it was probably 1989, because every defense and goalie coach since has now seen that happen with undesired results. But this game came down to a one-goal margin with two minutes left. Petro stripped Gary Gait with an over head check in the open field to cause a ground ball scrum like a youth soccer game, and there was a last second save to give Syracuse the win. You can’t not get excited watching this game. And neither could the then-record setting crowd in attendance.
#2b: 1998 World Field Lacrosse Championship – USA vs. Canada
Renewing of the rivalry.
The 1978 Canada win over USA is still the stuff of legends. After losing to the Americans, 28-4, in round robin play, the young Canadians came back to win, 17-16, for the gold medal. There were only four teams in the entire tournament at the time. But after that? It was all USA. The Americans won the next five gold medals, two of which were over Australia, giving Canada the bronze. But 1998? 1998 was different. 1998 marked the return of Canada, who has now traded gold with USA for the last five field World Lacrosse Championships.
If the 1989 NCAA Championship had legends all of the field, I don’t even know what to call this. This game easily has a claim to the best lacrosse game ever when you combine the names and the overall impact. Here’s a snapshot of some of the names on Canada’s roster: Paul and Gary Gait, Chris Sanderson, Jim Veltman, Chris Gill, Steve Govett, John Grant Jr., Tom Marachek, Randy Mearns, and John Tavares. USA? Sal LoCascio, Mark Millon, Casey Powell, Jesse Hubbard, Charlie Lockwood, Tim Soudan, Kevin Finneran, Ryan Wade, Brian Voelker, Joe Breschi, Dave Morrow, and Pat McCabe. That’s not even everyone!
The on-the-field game was itself incredible, but this contest also did more for the sport as a whole. For one, it was the creation of Warrior. While Dave Morrow was a player, he was also sponsoring the team with his upstart lacrosse company, with that gear all over the field. As he mentioned on his podcast appearance on Paul Rabil’s “Suiting Up,” when this game came down to the wire, someone said to him that the fate of his company was riding on USA’s ability to win that game. No pressure. It also is the game that caused the creation of MLL. Seeing that environment and how much talent was available, the idea for a professional lacrosse league was born. Twenty-two years later, it’s hard to imagine professional field lacrosse just being the glimmer in someone’s eye.
#4: 2016 NCAA Men’s DI Championship – North Carolina vs. Maryland
When this game was played, the phrase “instant classic” was immediately tossed around, and for good reason.
This was a flat-out enjoyable game to watch. UNC was an unseeded Cinderella team going against the top-seeded Terps. This game, like in 2009, also needs to have the semifinals mentioned as context. Maryland was coming off a game that could also be on this list: a 15-14 overtime win against speed-loving Brown. UNC used a huge offensive effort to overcome Loyola, 18-13. These three games formed one of the best championship weekends in recent memory. No game was a dud, and everyone played great.
Even though this game wasn’t a true back and forth, it did have four lead changes, and starting with the second quarter, no team ever led by more than two. And like many games on this list, capping it all off with a multiple possession overtime was just icing on the cake.
#5: 2004 NCAA Men’s DI Championship – Syracuse vs. Navy
When I was in Boston visiting friends before the 2009 championship game, I had to explain what Syracuse lacrosse really was in a better context for them to understand. The best I could come up with at that point was that they were the evil empire, except that they would actually win. This game is really what I had in mind when making that comparison.
Syracuse already had more NCAA championships than nearly everyone, Mikey Powell was established as Mikey Powell, and there wasn’t too much to “prove.” Then you have Navy, on Memorial Day, playing in Baltimore. The Midshipmen had one of the most special teams they’d ever assemble, and the storyline to go along with it. If there was ever a time for Navy to win a title in anything, it was this game on this day. I remember reading that even Syracuse head coach John Desko joked after reading the paper in the morning that even he was tempted to root against Syracuse when the backdrop of everything was considered.
So, what actually happened? Syracuse won by a goal with a late comeback, and despite Navy’s best efforts, it could not tie it up at the end. This game is another that was truly entertaining from start to finish and deserves to be on this list even without anything you mentioned regarding everything off the field.
The Best of the Rest
Those five were the clear favorites from the “voting,” but that isn’t to say that’s it. These games were also great in their own right:
2010 NCAA Men’s DI Championship – Duke vs. Notre Dame
Duke’s first championship, and if you love defense, you’ll love this game. This was a game where absolutely everything was earned by both teams. It also goes down as Scotty Rodgers turning in the best championship weekend performance I’ve ever seen from a goalie, which makes it all the more tragic how the winner was finally determined. But for Duke, this game, and especially the final seconds, will live in program lore forever.
1992 NCAA Men’s DI Championship – Princeton vs. Syracuse
This one was a game of some interesting firsts. To begin, it was the first title for Princeton, kicking off what would be a solid decade of dominance under Bill Tierney. Interestingly enough, it’s the second game where Dave Morrow’s gear gets a mention, because this was the first game where he brought out the titanium shafts, which was the unofficial birth of Warrior Lacrosse. The game itself was electric, though. Syracuse was still loaded, riding high in the post-Gait years under Roy Simmons Jr. But despite a second half where Syracuse outscored Princeton, 7-2, this game went into extra periods, eventually with Princeton taking it in the second overtime.
2000 NLL Champions Cup – Rochester vs. Toronto
The first professional game to make this list of the best lacrosse games ever, this is another where the names playing were nothing short of incredible.
This game gets pointed to often when trying to show how much of an impact it has on the sport with the number of coaches and major players who were involved. Between Rochester and Toronto, you had Glenn Clark, Pat Coyle, Colin Doyle, Chris Gill, Dan Ladouceur, Jim Veltman, Dan Stroup, Kaleb Toth, Bob Watson, Steve Dietrich, John Grant Jr, Mike Hasen, Curt Malawsky, Randy Mearns, Pat O’Toole, Casey Powell, Tim Soudan, Brad Macarthur, Regy Thorpe, and even Paul Day coaching the Knighthawks alongside Tom Cincebox (who is still with the Knighhawks) while the Rock had Les Bartley, Ed Comeau, and Derek Keenen behind the bench. That’s not even everyone! It also was a true nail biter, going down to the final seconds. The John Grant Jr. tying goal has to be one of the most absurd goals a rookie has ever scored.
2010 Men’s DI Semifinal – Duke vs. Virginia
The only game on this entire list that is not a championship game, although it was played during championship weekend.
Following the electric 2009 championship the year prior, this semifinal matchup was a heavyweight bout. You have two programs playing each other for the third time of the year, and it felt like it was grudge match. UVA lost one game all season: a 13-9 loss to Duke, which was then avenged just a few days later in the ACC Championship via a 16-12 win. Duke had dropped a few early games (the seed for that whole “early Duke losses don’t mean anything” narrative), but was looking dominant. The weather was perfect, it was under the lights in Baltimore, and all the fans were into it. It was truly a fantastic game from start to finish.
For me personally, this game is what taught me how to just watch lacrosse and enjoy it. I was at my third championship weekend and had no rooting interest. All I wanted was to see two teams beat the crap out of each other and score some goals. That was exactly what I got to see. Also, Shamel Bratton pulled off one of the best in-game moves you’ll see on a stage like this. A behind the back split dodge? Mind is blown.
2017 NLL Champions Cup – Saskatchewan vs. Georgia
This game channels a little bit of 2009 where the ending alone could put it on the list. It also happens to involve Joel White.
With 10 seconds left, Saskatchewan had a one-point lead, the ball near its own goal, and was on its home floor. The Rush pulled the goalie, so they had an extra runner to have another option as a ball handler. Georgia doubled the ball with Joel White and Lyle Thompson, and when the whistle was blown, the quick pass to Chris Corbeil in the middle of the floor did not connect. Jordan MacIntosh picked up the quick loose ball, fed White, who then passed over to Lyle cutting in from the boards. Of all people, Lyle scored on his brother, Jeremy, who jumped between the pipes as a last hope at saving the ball with two seconds left in regulation. Georgia would go on to win it all just over a minute into overtime, giving the Swarm their first title in as many championship appearances and preventing the Rush’s threepeat.
2018 World Field Lacrosse Championship – USA vs. Canada
If you’re an American fan, this is now dubbed the “Miracle on the Mediterranean.” If you’re not, then it was offsides and the clock management game. But no matter who you are, it was a great game to watch.
The latest installment of the USA vs Canada men’s field gold medal games in the 2018 World Lacrosse Championships did not disappoint. Their meeting in the earlier stage was thrilling in its own right, but the way these two battled for everything on the field was nothing but entertaining. But it all came down to USA having a last second chance to win the game, or it was set to headed to overtime. Controversy ensued, but the Americans were able to take the title of World Champions back from the Canadians for another four years.