One of the greatest accomplishments in the history of UMBC athletics occurred on May 18, 1980 when the Retrievers’ men’s lacrosse team captured the Division II national championship.
Jay Robertson exploded for six goals, while fellow junior attackmen Marty Cloud and Dave Quattrini both had hat tricks as UMBC hammered Adelphi, 23-14, in the final that was held on UMBC’s Catonsville campus.
To this day, the national crown remains the pinnacle achievement for a UMBC men’s lacrosse program that was founded in 1968.
“The title was the culmination of hard work — not just in 1980, but all the preceding years that fulfilled UMBC’s long awaited goal,” coach Dick Watts declared afterward.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the championship and UMBC had planned to honor the 1980 team during an April 11 men’s lacrosse home game against Albany. A weekend of activities culminating in an on-field recognition at halftime never happened due to the coronavirus pandemic.
UMBC played its last lacrosse game of the 2020 season March 7 as college athletics were canceled nationwide the following week.
Joe Gold, a fleet midfielder on the fabled 1980 squad, had worked closely with UMBC athletic administrators to plan and organize the celebration. One would figure Gold would be crushed that a historic crisis has spoiled the party.
“There is zero disappointment on my behalf. Thanks to the advent of Zoom, I’ve gotten more contact with former teammates than I ever anticipated,” he said. “It seems to have extended the celebration. Instead of one or two days, it’s gone on for a month.”
The UMBC athletic department pivoted from the original plan and found ways to honor the outstanding squad. On April 11, current coach Ryan Moran convened a massive Zoom meeting for a virtual toast to the 1980 champs.
On May 18, UMBC released a tribute video that featured taped statements from many of the former players along with video clips. That tribute video was teased via social media channels for five days in advance.
Finally, on May 19, UMBC announced it was retiring the No. 51 jersey of George McGeeney — a starting defenseman on the 1980 team. McGeeney, the only UMBC men’s lacrosse player ever inducted into the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame, died of heart failure on Feb. 21.
McGeeney, out of Andover High in Linthicum, was one of many Anne Arundel natives to play key roles during the 1980 season. Cloud (Wroxeter Academy), Gold (Brooklyn Park) and tri-captain Steve Rodkey (Annapolis High) were also among eight starters or top reserves from the county.
Almost all were recruited by assistant coach Charlie Coker, an Annapolis High graduate who starred at Johns Hopkins and was a 2019 inductee into the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame.
Cloud and Rodkey had both been starting quarterbacks, Gold was a game-breaking running back and McGeeney a fearsome middle linebacker with each earning first team All-County honors. It was a trait shared by numerous members of the 1980 team.
“We had some stud athletes on that 1980 team. Almost all of them had been two-sport standouts in high school,” said Kurt Kimball, who followed the same recruiting philosophy after replacing Coker as assistant coach. “We knew if we could find great athletes, we could sharpen their skills and turn them into college lacrosse players.”
Kimball, a two-sport standout at St. Mary’s High, had served as an assistant at Maryland under Hall of Fame coach Clayton “Buddy” Beardmore. He oversaw some high-scoring offenses as the Terps captured NCAA Division I national championships in 1973 and 1975.
“Coach Watts told me to implement the same offensive system we had at Maryland,” Kimball recalled. “I wanted Coach Watts to understand that meant we were going to play up-tempo at all times and would probably make some mistakes along the way.”
In 1980, the Retrievers perfected that frenetic style of play. It was an era when college lacrosse teams could employ an unlimited number of long sticks, but UMBC used zero defensive midfield specialists.
“We played the game extremely fast. We went north and south and never slowed the ball down,” Kimball said. “We ran three midfields, and everyone played offense and defense. We were looking to get goals in transition. We wanted to fire off 70 shots per game.”
Rodkey dominated faceoffs and teamed with fellow first midfielders Craig Linthicum (Cambridge) and Russ LeClair to gobble up ground balls. Gold, one of the fastest players in lacrosse, was a one-man clearing machine.
Dennis Wey (Calvert Hall), Phil Whims (Dulaney), Jay Harkey and a trio of Annapolis High alums — Dan Nickerson, Mike Ruland and Craig Tucker — rounded out the deep midfield.
Robertson, a native of Deer Park, N.Y., was the primary playmaker and led UMBC with 75 points in 1980. Cloud was another dangerous dodger and ranked second with 61 points. Quattrini, out of Corning East in upstate New York, was a lethal inside finisher and topped the Retrievers with 46 goals.
Robertson and Quattrini still stand third in UMBC men’s lacrosse history for single-season points and goals. So loaded was the attack that Joe Baldini (Corning East), described as the best passer on the team, came off the bench and played extra-man offense. All three of the Retrievers’ starting attackmen were named first-team All-American in 1980.
Tri-captain Bruce Baldwin (Archbishop Curley) earned the Schmeisser Award as the best defenseman in Division II as a senior in 1980. However, Baldwin would be the first to admit the Retrievers were not a lock-down defensive squad.
UMBC routed North Carolina, 18-9, and coach Willie Scroggs told Watts afterward: “We didn’t know you had that much firepower.” The Tar Heels would capture consecutive Division I national championships in 1980 and 1981.
“We were run-and-gun. There were not many set plays, just pick up the ball and go to the goal,” Baldwin said. “What I remember about that season is that we had so many weapons. Our offense dominated possession and wore teams down. I had the best seat in house because I stood at the midfield line watching the offense work for most of the game.”
It was routine for the Retrievers to have 10 players score in games. UMBC averaged almost 17 goals and surpassed 20 four times. Rodkey, another first-team All-American, emphasized how unselfish those players were and estimated that 80% of the team’s 231 goals were assisted.
“Kurt Kimball always preached making the extra pass and everyone did just that. He called it circulation offense and we were told to keep the ball moving at all times," he said. "We did not have one superstar. We had a bunch of (players) capable of having big games. Nobody cared who got the glory.”
UMBC was just as talented on the other end with Baldwin spearheading a close defense that included McGeeney and fellow sophomore Scott Hundertmark (Boys’ Latin). Senior Rick Peret (Wroxeter) started in goal after sitting behind two-time All-American Tommy Dunlap (Southern).
“Our defense created a lot of the ground balls that led to fast-breaks. We scored a lot of goals in 6-on-5, 5-on-4 and 4-on-3 situations," Kimball said.
UMBC was just as talented in 1979 and came up short, losing 17-12 at Adelphi in the Division II national championship.
“It was a very sophomore-laden team with a smattering of juniors and some very talented freshmen,” Cloud said of the 1979 roster. “We knew we would have an older, wiser team the next year.”
During the long bus ride home from Long Island, the players vowed to return to the finals and avenge that defeat.
Watts took over as coach in 1971, the fourth season in UMBC men’s lacrosse history. He led the Retrievers to the NCAA Division II-III Tournament for six straight seasons starting in 1974. That 1979 squad had to win three playoff games to reach the final.
UMBC made a strong opening statement in 1980 by routing Salisbury State 21-11 and Delaware 22-12. A narrow 15-14 road victory over Roanoke showed the squad had resolve. That resounding win versus Carolina proved UMBC could compete with the top teams in Division I.
“It was a special group of players that had developed and matured. There was a nice combination of veteran leadership and youthful enthusiasm,” said Kimball, who now lives in Charlotte, N.C. “It all came together and became magic in 1980.”
UMBC compiled an 11-3 record with all three losses coming to Division I opponents — Navy (19-14), N.C. State (18-12) and Towson State (19-12). Watts felt the Retrievers underestimated the Tigers, their Baltimore beltway rival that had moved up to Division I that year after securing the Division II national title in 1974.
Each loss was followed by an impressive victory as UMBC showed it could bounce back.
Rodkey, who focused on faceoffs and ground balls, remembers everyone staying in their lane. Gold reveled in the job of clearing. Baldini could easily have been a starter and was content playing extra-man offense, while sophomore Frank Valenza (Livingston, N.J.) was a good fourth defenseman.
“Every player had a role and was committed to executing that role. We had some outstanding senior-junior leadership that season, and everyone fell in line,” Rodkey said.
Division II and III split in 1980 and there was no NCAA tournament for the middle tier. NCAA officials determined the teams ranked one-two in the final United States Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association poll would meet for the championship.
So it was that UMBC hosted Adelphi on May 18, just 15 days after winning the regular-season meeting between the schools, 14-11. It rained hard overnight, soaking the natural grass field, but the sun was shining by the time 2,500 fans gathered inside UMBC Stadium.
Fledgling all-sports network ESPN sent its cameras, announcers and production team to broadcast the Division II final.
It was a back-and-forth affair into the third quarter before the home team took control. Cloud scored two goals and assisted another to spark a 5-0 run that increased the UMBC lead to 15-8. The Retrievers never let up and the nine-goal margin of victory left no doubt about the best team in Division II that season.
Watts, now 91 and living in Naples, Florida, recently watched a YouTube replay of the original ESPN broadcast and reflected on the pinnacle of his career. Marcie Watts said watching the game again was an “emotional experience” for her husband.
“Having the home-field advantage was key,” Watts wrote in an email. “What made that team so good was the fact we had good players who were such good guys.”
Dave Staley, who was a freshman backup goalie in 1980, was the first member of the team to die. McGeeney, the 1982 winner of the Schmeisser Award as the nation’s top defenseman, died just a week after being named chief operating officer of US Lacrosse this past winter.
Almost 20 former UMBC players and their wives gathered at the Annapolis Yacht Club for dinner prior to McGeeney’s funeral. Members of the 1980 team routinely reunite at the Delaware shore where several own summer homes. Rodkey lives in Atlanta and annually invites his former teammates for a Georgia football game.