Ask anyone in the lacrosse world about 1971 and they will likely tell you it was a huge year for the sport, as it was the first year of the NCAA tournament. Cornell defeated Maryland in the championship to win that first NCAA title.
And while the very first NCAA tournament is wildly significant, there was another massive, record setting, and trend setting event in lacrosse that took place in 1971. And it just happened to take place in the Lone Star State.
On May 8th, 1971, the 3-5 Johns Hopkins Blue Jays took the field against the 5-2 Navy Midshipmen in the Astrodome in Houston, marking the first college lacrosse game to be played the state of Texas. The game is considered by many as the start of lacrosse in the Lone Star State, which now produces high-caliber players each year.
The late Ralph O’Connor, a Johns Hopkins alum (’51), huge Hopkins benefactor, one-time board of trustee member, and one of four original partners who acquired the NBA’s San Diego Rockets and brought them to Texas as the Houston Rockets, was the main player behind bringing the two historic rivals from the Maryland to Texas.
O’Connor was able to convince future Hall of Fame coaches, Bob Scott (Hopkins) and Willis Bilderback (Navy), to take their teams down to Houston to try and help introduce the game in the area. And, by all accounts, it was a success.
In front of nearly 20,000 spectators (which set a single-game NCAA attendance record), Navy took down Johns Hopkins 9-6 in that historic contest in the Astrodome. Navy then went on to reach the NCAA semifinals, where they lost to Maryland.
But much more meaningful than the final score or how each team fared after the game in Houston is how much lacrosse has grown in Lone Star State since that game in 1971.
Two players from the East Coast who attended the game in the Astrodome, Bob Korba, who was an undergrad at SMU, and Dave Gruber, who was a grad student at Texas A&M, came together and founded the first two college club teams in Texas (Dallas Lacrosse Club, Texas A&M) a few weeks later.
The lacrosse scene continued to grow in Texas in the 1970’s, as the Texas Lacrosse League was formed in the summer of 1972 and by 1974 Texas Tech, Baylor, LSU, and Tulane all had formed club teams an the league was renamed the Southwest Lacrosse Association (SWLA).
One of the key figures in helping to expand lacrosse in Texas in the years following the historic Johns Hopkins-Navy game was Les Matthews, who started in goal as a freshman for Johns Hopkins during that game in the Astrodome.
In the decades following, youth and high school lacrosse started to grow in the Lone Star State. And all that growth has gotten us to the modern day climate of lacrosse in Texas, which is one of the largest hotspots for growth in the nation, boast over 100 high school programs and over 3,000 players between boys and girls.
The state has also hosted numerous other DI games on both the men’s and women’s side since that original game in 1971. Most notably, Villanova upset Yale in 2018 at the Star in Frisco, Texas.
And to think, two of the most historic lacrosse programs in the history of the sport helped set this growth trend in motion back in 1971 when they said “yes” to go play in the Astrodome.
The Johns Hopkins library has numerous photos on film from that 1971 Astrodome game in their online collection.