When US Lacrosse created its Team of Distinction Award, it was inevitable the honor would eventually be bestowed on one of the Navy contingents from the 1960s that were led by legendary head coach Willis Bilderback.
For the selection committee, the only question was which one.
Navy was crowned as national champion by the United States Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association eight times during what became known as the “Decade of Dominance.”
There will always be debate about which of those teams was the best, but there is no denying the 1964 and 1965 squads stick out as the only ones to go undefeated. Navy lost just one game in four other seasons during the “Swingin’ Sixties.”
US Lacrosse settled on honoring Navy’s 1965 club, which went 12-0 and defeated opponents by an average score of 17-5. Those Midshipmen had seven All-Americans (four on first team, five on second team) and swept the three major postseason awards.
Future US Lacrosse Hall of Famer Jimmy Lewis received the Turnbull Award as the nation’s top attackman, converted football player Pat Donnelly earned the Schmeisser Award as best defenseman while renowned goalkeeper Dennis Wedekind was presented the Kelly Award as most outstanding player at his position.
“The difficulty was not whether to choose a Navy team, but which Navy team to choose during this decade-long dominance of college lacrosse,” said Dom Starsia, chairman of the US Lacrosse Men's Game Hall of Fame Task Force. “Congratulations to a Navy team that defined excellence in every way.”
Navy 1965 men’s lacrosse will be presented with the 2018 US Lacrosse Team of Distinction Award, recognizing outstanding contributions and impact to lacrosse made by an entire team during a specific era of participation. The Midshipmen will be officially honored on Friday night at the US Lacrosse Headquarters in Sparks to kick off the annual Hall of Fame Weekend festivities.
“We are so grateful to US Lacrosse for this tremendous honor. Speaking on behalf of all the members of the 1965 Navy team, we are overwhelmed with joy about this recognition,” said Owen McFadden, who was a junior attackman that season.
Primary criteria for receiving the US Lacrosse Team of Distinction Award are: Impact and contribution to the game of lacrosse; extraordinary winning streak; national or world Championships won.
Navy’s 1965 team checked all the boxes with Bilderback privately telling close friends it was the finest he coached during his 14-year tenure (1959-1972) at the Naval Academy.
“Bildy always said this was his best team,” Wedekind confirmed. “As a loyal coach who loved all his players and teams, I know Bildy was reluctant to make such a statement, but when pressed to pick one that stood out it would be the 1965 team.”
Lewis, one of only three attackmen in Division I history to earn the Turnball Award three times, played varsity at Navy from 1964-1966 and suffered just one loss during that stretch. Now 73 years old and living in Napa Valley, California, Lewis remains bitter about getting beaten 12-11 by Mount Washington Lacrosse Club in 1966, spoiling his chance to be part of three straight unbeaten squads.
Lewis also believes the 1965 outfit stood out.
“Truth of the matter is that all the performance metrics show how dominating that particular team really was,” Lewis said. “It came smack dab in the middle of what we refer to as the Decade of Dominance and it is my belief that Navy lacrosse reached its peak that year.”
BUILDING OFF 1964
There was plenty to build off from the season before as Navy went 10-0 in 1964, whipping Johns Hopkins 15-3 and closing out with a 9-4 defeat of archrival Army. The Midshipmen graduated some talent, notably Schmeisser Award winner James Campbell and fellow first team defenseman Mike Coughlin along with first team All-American midfielder Pete Taylor and honorable mention selection Bob Sutton.
However, the Mids were still loaded with Lewis leading a list of three returning All-Americans that included Wedekind and midfielder Brian Lantier, who would serve as team captain in 1965.
Lantier, out of Huntington, New York, originally went to Maryland, but transferred after one year and started as a plebe at the Naval Academy. Due to an incident a few years earlier, Bilderback had seen his annual recruiting allotment reduced from eight to two with Lantier and Wedekind the lone lacrosse players brought in for 1961. They would become roommates and best friends.
“Brian Lantier was the heart and soul of that ’65 team, for sure. He was such a strong leader and that continued after we graduated,” McFadden said.
Lantier was instrumental in creation of the Bilderback-Moore Navy Lacrosse Hall of Fame room at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. The Long Island native had been battling cancer for a long time, but was on hand for the opening of that facility in 2008. Sadly, Lantier did not live to see the Team of Distinction honor, having died last year following a nearly 14-year battle.
“Brian was my roommate and best friend and I miss him greatly,” said Wedekind, getting choked up during a phone interview. “Brian was about 6-foot-3 and could really run. He was aggressive going after ground balls and had great stickwork. He was one of our playmakers.”
Lewis was the offensive quarterback, handling the ball behind the net and using his tremendous speed, quickness and skill to lead Navy in scoring with 63 points in 1965. The product of Uniondale High on Long Island had a very balanced campaign with 27 goals and 36 assists.
“Jimmy was the best lacrosse player I ever saw. He was the consummate athlete and it was truly an honor to play alongside him,” said McFadden, who started on attack with Lewis. “Jimmy was just so fast and deceptive. He could get around any defender so most teams tried to double-team him.”
Wedekind was a rare three-year starter between the pipes during that era of Navy lacrosse. The Baltimore native, who was a classmate of McFadden’s at Loyola-Blakefield, was also the Kelly Award winner as a sophomore.
“Dennis was a very experienced goalkeeper and did a great job of communicating with the defense,” Lewis said. “Dennis did not give up any cheap goals. He was very fast and could clear the ball himself.”
Bilderback figured out quickly that he could bolster the lacrosse team by convincing some of Navy’s great football players to try the stick sport. The Midshipmen were a powerhouse on the gridiron in those days and football players made up the majority of recruited athletes at the academy.
Bilderback had worked out a gentleman’s agreement with head coach Wayne Hardin and the plan of having football standouts double as lacrosse players was in full swing by 1965. Donnelly was a star halfback on the football team while his close defense running mates Pat Philbin and John Mickelson played tackle and end, respectively.
Donnelly succeeded Campbell as the shutdown defender in 1965, taking such standout attackmen as Tom Sheckells (Army), Jerry Pfeifer (Hopkins) and Jack Heim (Maryland) out of the game.
“Pat was another world-class athlete. He was in great shape and was very agile, very strong,” Wedekind said. “I never worried too much about whichever attackman Pat was covering.”
Midfielder Neil Henderson was another football convert, using his strength and power to dominate the faceoffs. Steve Szabo, who ran on the first midfield with Lantier and Stewart Overton, was another football recruit.
“I think the presence of the football players was extremely strong on the 1965 team. They brought a very hard-hitting, physical attitude,” Lewis said. “Practices were extremely competitive and the games were relatively easy by comparison. We had a basic philosophy of being very physical. There was some intimidation involved because opposing teams knew they would get beat up by Navy.”
Lewis was a multi-sport athlete himself, having scored the lone goal to help Navy beat Michigan State in the 1964 NCAA men’s soccer championship. He recalled the football players loved lacrosse because it was high level varsity competition without the same seriousness.
“Football at the Division I level was so intense that given the opportunity to play lacrosse they could enjoy the physical aspects while not quite practicing at the same intensity,” Lewis said. “Bildy ran an organization that was focused on winning, but he also recognized that you could still have a good time.”
ONLY ONE CLOSE CALL
As it turns out, the season opener was the toughest game Navy played in 1965 with Mount Washington Lacrosse Club proving a formidable foe. It was basically an all-star team consisting of former All-Americans from the top lacrosse schools in the country.
Mount Washington was led by the likes of Al and Joe Seivold (Washington College), Richie Evans (Virginia), Buzzy Budnitz (Johns Hopkins), Gene Fusting (Washington College) and Furlong Baldwin (Princeton).
Navy became the first collegiate team in many years to knock off Mount Washington, pulling out an 11-10 victory on April 3.
“It was a great game and I think we surprised a lot of people because Mount Washington had not been beaten in a while,” Lewis said.
Wedekind was raised in the Mount Washington area and idolized the players that were hand-picked for the powerful lacrosse club. “Growing up, I either wanted to play for Mount Washington or beat them. So that game was a real thrill for me personally,” he said.
Navy blew out Harvard 16-1 four days later and that was a forecast of what was to come. Only four opponents lost by less than double digits with Maryland (13-7) coming the closest.
Navy capped the incredible campaign by routing archrival Army, 18-7, in what remains the most lopsided result in series history. Wedekind said the seniors remembered 1963 when Navy beat all the traditional powers (Hopkins, Virginia, Maryland) while Army lost to all three. The Midshipmen came in overconfident and were upset by the Cadets, 11-9, in Annapolis during Commissioning Week.
“We had pretty much dominated all comers in ’65, but girded ourselves against getting that feeling of overconfidence again,” he said. “That team played with an edge in every game.”
Navy was blessed with incredible depth in 1965 and was able to overwhelm opponents with waves of players at every position. Tommy Morris and Frank Markowski split time at the third attack spot while Bob Bandy also saw time.
Bilderback could run three midfields with Howard Crisp, Dick Salmon and Jimmy Long comprising the second line. Bill Eisenhardt, Bobby Havasy and Chris Hoch were reserve defensemen while Bill McBride backed up Wedekind. Mac Ogilvie, who would become a first team All-American in 1967, was third string.
“We constantly rotated at attack and defense as well as midfield,” McFadden said. “We had players on the bench who could have started for a lot of schools.”
Helping Bilderback mold this talent-laden team were assistant coaches Buster Phipps and Larry Goldstein. Lewis marveled how those three men turned football players into lacrosse players.
“I would say that Bildy was more of a practice-oriented coach. He didn’t get too much into the Xs and Os during games,” Lewis said. “Bildy used the practices to develop the strategy and plan for the games. Come game day, he had the trust and confidence to let us play.”
Members of the 1965 team got together for dinner on Thursday night then played golf on Friday. Plans called for another round of golf on Saturday with a party that night. McFadden said 35 former Navy players are attending the reunion initiated by US Lacrossse. Lantier is one of five 1965 team members who are deceased.
“Attitude and competitive spirit trumped everything. We had that feeling we were going to win whatever it took,” Wedekind said when asked the reasons for rousing success in ’65. “There was a real love on that team. It was palpable and powerful. The Naval Academy is a crucible that you live in and it just builds an incredibly close bond.”