The Streak

The weekend of April 20-21, nearly 70 members of the 1976, 1977, and 1978 Big Red men’s lacrosse teams gathered on the Cornell campus to watch the 2018 edition of the Big Red roll to a 19-5 victory over Ivy League foe Brown, and to celebrate the 40th anniversary of one of the greatest feats achieved by a collegiate lacrosse program – an NCAA record 42-game winning streak that stretched nearly three full seasons.

After losing to Navy in the 1975 NCAA semifinal game, the record-breaking streak began with a dominating 24-8 win over Adelphi in the 1976 season-opener and ended in a 13-8 loss to Johns Hopkins in the 1978 NCAA title game. During the time between, the Big Red won two national championships, were ranked No. 1 in the USILA coaches poll for 14 consecutive weeks, and defeated its opponents by an astounding margin of 9.8 goals per game.

(Left) Mike French '76 and Bill Marino (#8) '76 hold the 1976 NCAA Championship trophy with assistant coach Mike Waldvogel. (Right) Head Coach Richie Moran holds the 1977 NCAA Championship trophy.

“Every game, we had one goal and that was to do whatever we could to have the game decided by the third quarter, hopefully early in the third quarter, because that meant our whole team could play,” says Mike French ’76, the second-leading all-time scorer in Cornell history. “There were guys on our bench that could have started for any other team in the country. So we always wanted to put a game away early because that gave all our teammates the opportunity to play and be part of the team's success.

“Everybody kind of had their eye on the prize of winning a national championship, and we didn't really think that much about the winning streak.”

For John Griffin ’79, who played behind All-American goalie Dan Mackesey ’77 for two seasons before moving into a starting role during the 1978 campaign, the streak was just something the team occasionally read about in the papers.

(Left) Dan Mackesey was a two-time USILA Outstanding Goalie selection, leading the Big Red to the 1976 and 1977 national championship. (Right) John Griffin '79 took over when Mackesey graduated and became a two-time All-American.

“The best I remember now, the winning streak was not prominent in the team's collective mind,” Griffin says. “I do remember that the media would cover it, but it wasn't every day. When we set the record at Hopkins, I remember that being in the paper. But we didn’t talk about it. It was never about getting one more game for the win streak. We just wanted to keep getting better and keep winning. That permeated from [head coach] Richie [Moran]'s approach. The way he led and coached that team, he didn't let anybody's egos get ahead of themselves.”

Keeping egos in check might seem like a daunting task when considering the pedigree of the individuals that appeared on those three rosters. In total, 17 players accumulated 28 All-America honors. Among those were nine USILA player of the year honorees, as the Big Red took home two Outstanding Player awards (Mike French 1976; Eamon McEneaney 1977), two Outstanding Attackman awards (Eamon McEneaney 1975; Mike French 1976), two Outstanding Defensemen awards (Chris Kane 1977 & 1978), two Outstanding Goalie awards (Dan Mackesey 1976 & 1977), and one Outstanding Midfielder award (Bob Henrickson 1976).

Despite the individual accolades and the collective team success, according to Hall of Fame head coach Richie Moran, the group was made up of “extremely humble, hard-working, exceptional athletes and top-notch lacrosse players.”

“I was so lucky to be associated with such a great group of athletes that had such a joint common goal and purpose,” adds three-time All-American attackman Tom Marino ’78. “I give Richie the credit for that. We were a perfect storm of players at a particular moment in time, and he created that."

Gary Malm (#26) '77 and Tom Marino (#15) '78 lead the Big Red onto the field during the 1977 season.

Coach Moran, along with longtime assistant coach Mike Waldvogel, worked to establish a locker room atmosphere of comradery that balanced hard work with a lot of fun.

“Guys knew that it was going to be tough,” says Moran. “We were always going to do distance running and strenuous conditioning. We were going to work hard on the field and repeat skills until we coaches felt that we were accomplishing what we wanted. Typically, our practices were tougher than our games because of the talent and the challenge of everybody pushing one another, but there was always some joy in it. There were always a lot of pranks and a lot of humor, and that made coming to practice and being part of a team really special.”

The hard work and humor paid off as Cornell rattled off win after win.

While 42 games proved to be the mark eventually established by the Big Red, Navy’s original record of 33 consecutive victories was broken midway through the 1978 season in a dream matchup for lacrosse fans. The record-breaking game pitted No. 1 Cornell against No. 2 Johns Hopkins at venerable Homewood Field on April 15, 1978. The game was so anticipated that the athletic administration at Johns Hopkins installed 4,200 additional seats to increase the capacity to 10,000, and that still wasn’t enough, as the Washington Post reported an overflow crowd of 13,000 in attendance to watch the Big Red roll to a 16-11 victory.

Tom Marino '78 gets hit after taking a shot vs. Johns Hopkins in the record-setting game at Homewood Field.

The Post’s postgame article, written by Mark Asher, stated

The 16-11 final margin does not indicate how Cornell dominated this game between the nation’s top two Division I lacrosse teams … The vital victory did not surprise Cornell’s Chris Kane, the best lacrosse defensemen in the country. “I thought we’d blow them out,” he said. “We’re the best team that ever played the game. No one else did that, did they?” Then he yelled, “34, go for more.” A teammate corrected him. “Thirty-four more,” he said. Then the Big Red players threw Richie Moran, their coach, into the shower.

To this day, the record is one of the things of which Kane, a two-time national defenseman of the year, is “most proud.”

“It’s a great ice-breaker,” he says. “I say that I played on a team that holds the NCAA Division I record for most consecutive wins, and it always brings an awe to the crowd. And it's really cool that it’s 40 years old!”

With the regular-season game against the Blue Jays out of the way, the Big Red encountered just one close call – a 10-9 victory over Rutgers – en route to a rematch with Hopkins in the national championship game.

That is where the streak came to an end as the Blue Jays controlled the face-off and played stout defense to earn a 13-8 victory in front of 17,500 fans at Rutgers Stadium. The loss was the first and only setback for the team’s 17 seniors, who had also posted a 9-0 record with the Big Red’s freshman team in 1975.

“It was the only game I ever lost in college, and I remember just thinking when it was all over, ‘How do you react when you lose?’” says Kane. “When you're a kid, you’re upset … you’re bewildered thinking ‘What just happened? How could we have lost?’ But a week later, you appreciate that it was a heck of a run. And we knew all those guys on the other team, so I was glad they won a national championship.”

Chris Kane '78 following the 1977 NCAA Championship game.

For Marino, who grew up with Johns Hopkins’ 1978 senior captain Michael O'Neill, happiness for his best friend took the sting out of losing.

“I remember going up to Michael at the end of the game and telling him that I was so glad that he won one,” says Marino. “And that's honestly how I felt about it. We accomplished a lot, and I was really sincerely happy that he got one.”

Since Cornell established the record, only six programs have strung together more than 20 consecutive wins, with Ivy rival Princeton coming the closest to threatening the mark, winning 29 in a row from 1996-98.

“I was paying attention to Princeton,” says Griffin. “The streak means a lot to me, and I'm sure it means a lot to all the guys on the team. Someday, it's going to be broken. That thought doesn't keep me awake at night, but there is a lot of pride that we have something that nobody has really gotten close to yet.”

The pride in the streak and the comradery of the group keeps them connected to each other, and to the Big Red program. The members of the 1976, ’77, and ’78 teams routinely reunite either for informal get-togethers, or to support the Big Red and remember their fallen classmate Eamon McEneaney ’77, who tragically died during the terrorist attacks on 9/11, at the annual men’s lacrosse golf outing that bears his name.

“To this day, we are friends for life,” says Marino. “My class gets together once a year, minimum. But what I love about this celebration weekend in April is that it's not just the three classes with the streak. When you think about it, the players that were freshmen my senior year would have been part of it, too. The streak really crosses over six or seven classes of athletes. To me, that’s the thing. That's what makes it so amazing.”

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