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Cornell-Syracuse: Central New York’s Elite Men’s Lacrosse Rivalry

Not many people have experienced the feelings of joy, elation, sadness, and heartbreak within the span of a minute and a half. However, as the 2009 NCAA Men’s Lacrosse National Championship came to an end, about 20,000 Big Red fans stood at Gillette Stadium in utter shock seconds after they were ready to celebrate a national championship.

For many Cornell lacrosse players, coaches, alumni, and supporters, the mere mention of the word “Syracuse” produces an instant flashback to the final moments of this game against the Orange on Memorial Day six years ago. Rob Pannell ‘13, only a freshman at the time, shares the sentiments of many, as he says the memory still lingers in his mind to this day.

“When I hear Syracuse, the first thing that comes to mind is the ’09 championship game and the final 30 seconds of that game immediately replay in my head. Although it is not spoken about much in the Cornell lacrosse world, it is something that is thought about often,” remarks the current NCAA Division I all-time career points leader and recipient of the 2013 Tewaaraton Award, which is presented to the most outstanding college lacrosse player.

The Big Red, defending a one-goal lead, forced a turnover with 27.6 seconds remaining in the contest, which seemed to ice the game and give Cornell its first national title since 1977. After a sea of red stood cheering and screaming in happiness, Kenny Nims stripped the ball from Big Red defenseman Matt Moyer by the midline on the team’s clearing attempt. The Orange drove down the field and Nims finished the break with a miraculous goal with four seconds left to force overtime.

Cornell secured the extra session’s opening faceoff, but, once again, Syracuse dislodged the ball from a Big Red player, and the Orange gained possession, while Cornell fans stood in silence, holding their breath. Following a few missed shots, Cody Jamieson buried the dagger into hearts of Big Red fans around the country to give Syracuse a 10-9 victory.

This outcome marked the latest twist in a 95-year-old lacrosse rivalry in upstate New York and fueled the matchup for recent years, making it one of the sport’s biggest competitions.

“It was a game that, for me, made this rivalry all the more special in the coming years,” states Pannell. “During the week of preparation leading up to the Syracuse game, it does not need to be talked about. Everyone knows and everyone remembers.”

The rivalry was similar before 2009; the Cornell-Syracuse matchup has always represented a very high level of lacrosse and an opportunity for each team to play against the nation’s finest. Still, that championship game only amplified the tradition.

Max Seibald ’09, winner of the 2009 Tewaaraton Trophy and Lowes Senior Class Award, says, “the 2009 loss inserts another element to the rivalry because there is one more meaningful and exciting lacrosse game added to a list of many others, and, obviously, the magnitude and the national exposure of the game enhance that.”

The Big Red and the Orange have hooked up 102 times on the lacrosse field. The inaugural matchup occurred in 1920 with Cornell defeating Syracuse, 5-3, and the two teams have squared off in every season since, except for the years of 1944, 1945, 1977, and 1978. Including this year, Syracuse holds a firm 64-37-1 advantage in the rivalry. Each squad enjoyed a few dominating stretches, as the Big Red won multiple national championships in the 1970s, and the Orange went on a 13-game win streak against Cornell in the 1990s, but the series has been extremely tight in recent years with Syracuse only possessing an 11-6 edge since 2000. Furthermore, the two teams have played six one-goal games and had split the previous four meetings, until the Orange defeated the Big Red in the 2015 season opener.

Throughout Cornell’s period of supremacy in the ‘70s, legendary head coach Richie Moran led the team to three national titles in 1971, 1976, and 1977, during which he set an NCAA record for the most consecutive wins with 42 from 1976-78. Moran says that the Syracuse game was always prominent because of the closeness between the teams, as many players had friends on the opposing squad. This created a very intense and tenacious rivalry since each team became more motivated due to the relationships.

“It’s been close to 100 years that we’ve been playing Syracuse, and it brings out lots of enthusiasm,” comments Moran. He also remarks on the closeness of the community, stating, “Ithaca embraces Cornell lacrosse, and the fans love to follow the team – especially when Syracuse is involved,” which adds yet another dimension to the uniqueness of this annual contest.

Every time the Big Red suit up for another installment in the classic series, an extra focus and enthusiasm fill the locker room. “You can definitely feel a heightened sense of emotion,” says Pannell, “there is a clear elevation in everyone’s effort level and a sharpness in everyone’s preparation.”

Much of this heightened anticipation can be attributed to both teams’ recent success, since Cornell and Syracuse have been consistently ranked within the top 10, even top five, in the country. Thus, the games have developed into those with much more meaning than an average rivalry because they possess serious playoff and seeding implications, transforming the matchup into something all the more special.

“There were many close games during my four years at Cornell, and each time we played them, it was a chance to prove that we were the best lacrosse team in upstate New York,” explains Seibald.

Today, the series passion burns stronger than ever, as current senior and co-captain Connor Buczek describes, “Syracuse is a model of consistency in college lacrosse. They definitely always stand a tough task for us, and we love competing with them as our biggest out of conference rival.”

The recent face-offs with the Orange have displayed very strong opponents and have constantly resulted in hard-fought games. Fans consistently turnout for the bout, whether its located at Schoellkopf Field in Ithaca or up at the Dome in Syracuse. “It’s the ultimate battle for upstate lacrosse supremacy,” states Buczek.

This statement nicely illustrates the impacts on a local scale because it has resulted in numerous effects on lacrosse in upstate New York. It has become a game that lacrosse fans in central New York annually circle on their calendars.

“When you have two top teams an hour away from each other that, in their respective sport, have been as consistent and dominant as Cornell and Syracuse have been over the past decade, it’s special,” justifies Pannell.

The sport of lacrosse maintains many deep ties to the upstate New York region, so, as Seibald says, “the history and tradition of lacrosse in central New York have played a big role in shaping the rivalry. It validates that some of the best lacrosse is still played in this area, and it signifies a hardnosed, blue-collar brand of the game that is representative of central New York as a whole.”

Buczek expresses similar feelings since it is a game that everyone gets excited about, and it symbolizes terrific competition, but also sportsmanship. “There is always a great show of support from both sides…I think it’s a marquee matchup that is always locally broadcasted, so it makes it a lot of fun for us and, hopefully, all lacrosse fans in the area.”

The fact that Cornell and Syracuse have pushed each other to achieve success has made this region one of the best in the country. “These lacrosse programs have cemented upstate New York as a dominant region for lacrosse in the U.S.,” states former All-American and tri-captain Tom Marino ’95.

This pride and respect that the Big Red and the Orange share for each other is evident in each match between these two powerhouses. As Pannell observes perfectly, “you know you have to bring your greatest effort to become victorious and that’s a tribute to both teams’ hard work and dedication to being a top team and remaining there.”

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