The Division I Unforgotten: N.C. State Wolfpack

via acc.blogs.starnewsonline.com

10 years.

That was the lifecycle of N.C. State's Division I existence.  In that 10-year span, though, things moved rapidly: The Wolfpack went to its first -- and only -- NCAA Tournament in just its seventh varsity season and removed itself from top-level competition just three years after that.

While only a blip on the radar of college lacrosse history, N.C. State still has one of the more interesting stories in all of the game, even if it is drastically truncated.

THE BEGINNING

The genesis of Wolfpack lacrosse was pretty simple: an instructor in the university's military science program wanted a team.  That's it.  The man who made the demand was Colonel Robert E. Conroy, a cat that had played for Massachusetts back in the early-to-mid 1950's.  With the blessing of the school, Conroy pulls together whatever he can find and his new club team manages to go 2-6 in the spring of 1972.

Not bad for a school with no tradition that simply started a team so as to appease a man that had a deadly ability with firearms and ammunition.

With such a glowing club record, N.C. State did what any reasonable institution of higher learning would do: elevate that program up to varsity status immediately because, well, those knuckleheads at North Carolina aren't going to beat themselves.  1973 wasn't exactly a banner year for the Wolfpack, though: against a mix of varsity and club teams, N.C. State managed to only go 3-9.  Things weren't exactly looking exponentially sunny.

1974 would serve as one of the big turning points in the program's history.  Gone was Conroy, transferred by the Army from his position at N.C. State to parts unknown, and in his place stepped Dr. Charlie Patch, an associate physical education teacher from the university.  Having come from Cortland State, the athletic department thought that Patch could handle the role of head lacrosse coach quite nicely.  There was just one problem:

"Believe it or not, the first game I coached at N.C. State was the first full lacrosse game I’d ever seen."

Sporting a roster of 19 cats of which only four had previous lacrosse experience, Patch's charges went 1-13.  In Patch's own words:

A good high school team could have beaten us.

Despite Patch's -- and his players' -- lack of experience, N.C. State would start to turn the corner in just under 12 months. 

THE DEVELOPMENT

This is where stuff starts to get crazy for N.C. State.  After winning just 6 games in three seasons, N.C. State manages to go 7-7 in 1975.  In 1976, the team goes 8-8.  This drastic improvement is attributable to a simple realization from Patch: "You need to have people that can play."

Well, yeah.  I guess lacrosse really isn't rocket science.

In finding guys that could play, Patch had to do it in one of the most difficult ways possible.  With very little local talent hanging out in Raleigh, Patch looked north, specifically to Canada and Long Island for talent.  What he ended up with was an All American that is still the second-leading goal scorer in NCAA history and future writer of Roundball Rock:

[Patch] succeeded in building a representative program by recruiting talented players no one else seemed to want. Among them was Stan Cockerton, an undersized kid from Canada who is still the second-leading goal scorer in NCAA history, and future television personality John Tesh.

JOHN TESH IS A LAX BRO! 

Behind Cockerton and four other Canadians, the Wolfpack started getting work done.  In 1977, N.C. State goes 10-4 (!!!), finishes the season ranked 14th-nationally, and Cockerton is named third-team All America while also bringing home ACC MVP honors.  1978 saw a continuation of the program's development, with the Wolfpack finishing the season ranked ninth in the country after a 9-4 campaign that saw N.C. State register its first victories ever against North Carolina and Virginia.

The program would soon reach its summit, but it would be without Charlie Patch.

THE TOURNAMENT YEAR: 1979

Before the 1979 season would start, Patch chose to step down from his post.  Citing a desire to find a more qualified coach, Patch said:

If the program was going to be top-notch, we needed someone with a lacrosse background and the time to devote to the sport. I had neither. I didn't feel that a limiting factor to our success should be the coaching.

So, in came former Virginia assistant Larry Gross.  The team would finish the regular season with an 8-3 record, destined for an NCAA first-round match up against powerhouse Johns Hopkins at Homewood Field.  Showing little compassion for the upstarts from the Research Triangle, the Blue Jays hammered the Wolfpack 20-6, the first win Johns Hopkins' eventual title run.

Things were looking up for N.C. State.  The Wolfpack had the players, they'd made the NCAA's, they'd hired a coach with pedigree, and they'd finish the season ranked sixth in the land. 

Unfortunately, 1979 was the beginning of the end for State.

THE DECLINE AND FALL

1980 brough the Wolfpack back to reality: despite still having the services of Cockerton, N.C. State could do no better than a 6-5 record.  In 1981, the first year post-Cockerton, the Wolfpack rallied back with a 7-4 record and a national ranking just outside of the nation's top-10.  No tournament invitation existed for N.C. State in that year, however.

1982 saw the arrival of future star Tim Nelson, but N.C. State went through its worst season in almost a decade.  Finishing the year with a 5-6 mark, the Wolfpack were forced to end their foray into top-level lacrosse with a losing record.  Citing costs and budgetary restraints -- travel had significantly impacted the program's bottom line -- N.C. State shuttered the program for good.

Patch did what he could to try and revive the program on the heels of the university's decision, but his plea fell on deaf ears:

Patch tried to do what he could to keep lacrosse alive. He wrote a letter to then-athletic director Willis Casey offering to coach for free. But with little interest in the sport around the South at the time, not to mention on campus, lacrosse was allowed to die a quiet death.

Frank Weedon, the school's sports information director at the time, did feel sympathetic about closing the program but cited all the issues that N.C. State had to deal with at the time:

"It's too bad we had to drop lacrosse." Weedon was saying recently, "but we really had no choice. Travel expenses were a problem. there were no high schools playing the sport in North Carolina at the time, so all the recruiting had to be done out of state. Out-of-state aid cost three times as much as in-state did. We would have kept playing if the other colleges in the South had agreed to play us twice every year, home and home. We were paying off a $3 million bond on Carter-Finely Stadium, and Willis (Casey) had to do women's sports."

AFTERMATH

Nelson would eventually transfer to Syracuse where he would lead the Orange to its first national title in 1983. 

With respect to N.C. State lacrosse, the Wolfpack would go on to participate in the MCLA at the club level.  When asked whether the Wolfpack will ever return to the big show, current N.C. State athletic director Debbie Yow had this to say:

"I have a personal appreciation for the sport of lacrosse. That said, I can not foresee a time when we would voluntarily add any sport," new AD Debbie Yow said. "The current 23 varsity sports need and deserve our attention and financial support."
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