The ACC's 5th Player
by Bill Tanton
There are 28,000 students at North Carolina State University. It's quite possible that not one of them knows the school ever had a lacrosse team.
And yet, there was a time, back in the '70s, when the Wolfpack was a major player in college lacrosse. In 1979, State played in the NCAA championship tournament - and there were only eight teams in the tournament then.
That year N.C. State had an 8-4 record, defeated the University of North Carolina, 16-7, beat Duke, 21-9, and at one point was ranked No. 6 in the country. The 'Pack lost to fellow Atlantic Coast Conference opponents Virginia and Maryland by one goal each.
True, State didn't get very far in the tournament. In the first round, the all red uniformed Wolfpack had to come to Baltimore to play Johns Hopkins at Homewood Field - and lost, 20-6.
"The one consolation we have," recalls Stan Cockerton, who was the high scoring star of those old Wolfpack teams, "is that Hopkins went on to win the national championship."
Maybe nobody - or almost nobody - at State knows the name Stan Cokerton any longer. Longtime lacrosse fans everywhere remember him though. Although he was only 5-7 and weighed but 155 pounds, the canadian-born Cockerton is the highest scoring player in major college lacrosse history with 193 career goals. Just this year in connection with the ACC's 50th anniversary observance Cockerton was named on of the 50 best lacrosse players in the conference's history.
Stan was also the hero of Canada's 17-16 win over the United States in the championship game of the 1978 WOrld Championships played in Stockport, England. That was the only game the U.S. has ever lost in international competition. Cockerton had six goals, including the game winner in overtime, and three assists that day.
The symbol for N.C. State's old lacrosse teams might well have been the maple leaf. Cockerton was one of five Canadians there at the time. The others were goalie, Bob Flintoff, who was from Cockerton's home town of Oshawa in Ontario, plus Dan Wilson, Rob Dalzel, and John Jordan.
TV's John Tesh, from Garden City Long Island, played lacrosse at State. More important to the lacrosse program, however, were the Nelson brothers, Scott and Timmy, from Yorktown, N.Y. Timmy Nelson played one year at State, then transferred to Syracuse and starred there. He is now the head coach at Utica College.
Scott Nelson played four years for the Wolfpack, including the last year the school fielded a team (1982). Scott went on to coach NCAA Division III championsip teams at Nazareth in 1996 and 1997. He's now coming up on his third year as head coach at Division-I Brown, where he has his Bear team on the rise.
"Stan Cockerton was the first college player to have all those fakes," says Scott Nelson. "He had great stick skills. He passed behind his back, shot behind his back. Those were box lacrosse moves that Stan learned in Canada. He did all that stuff before Gary and Paul Gait did. They came along a decade later."
Scott's memory of the '79 NCAA tournament loss at Hopkins shows what kind of lacrosse budget N.C. State had in those days: "That was the only game the team ever took a bus to. Every other trip we made in my four years there, we took vans."
Considering the fact that State hasn't had a lacrosse team for 20 years, one wonders how the school happened to have one in the first place. The chronology is interesting:
1972 - Col. Robert E. Conroy, an instrutor in N.C. State's military science department, had played lacrosse at the University of Massachusetts. He wants to get the sport started at State. School officials OK a club team. The team goes 2-6.
1973 - The school grants varsity status to lacrosse. Against a mixture of club and varsity level teams, the 'Pack is 3-9. The Army transfers Col. Conroy. Lacrosse appears doomed at State.
1974 - The university has an associate phys ed professor, Dr. Charles E. Patch, who is a graduate of Cortland State in New York, then one of the nation's premier programs. State officials assume Dr. Patch, coming from Cortland, has to know lacrosse. They are wrong. They name him head coach anyway. Later, Patch admits: "The first game I ever coached was the first full game I'd ever seen." With only four of his 19 squad members ever having previous lacrosse experience, Patch's team wins only one of its 14 games. "A good high school team could have beaten us," Patch says.
1975 - The coach turns recruiter. Patch learns, to his disappointment, that top high school players want to go to Hopkins, Cornell, Maryland, and Virginia. Not North Carolina State. Bolstered by his few experienced players, his Wolfpack goes 7-7. Says Patch: "You need to have people that can play."
1976 - People that can play start to show up. The team goes 8-8.
1977 - Cockerton, Flintoff and Co. appear in Raleigh. Things really pick up. Stan is the MVP in the ACC and makes third team All-America. The team has a 10-4 record and a No. 14 national ranking.
1978 - For the first time, the Wolfpack stickmen beat ACC powers North Carolina and Virginia. The team finishes 9-4, is ranked ninth nationally. Patch resigns. Says he: "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."
1979 - The NCAA tournament year. Larry Gross, a Baldwin, N.Y. man who had been an assistant coach at Virginia, is hired to coach State. The team finishes with an 8-4 record and is ranked sixth nationally. And then the brush with reality at Hopkins.
1980 - Even with Cockerton scoring goals like mad, the 'Pack is 6-5.
1981 - Cockerton has graduated but the team goes 7-4 anyway and is ranked No. 11.
1982 - The end. Coach Gross's only losing season (5-6). After a decade marked mostly by upgrading and improvement. N.C. State drops the sport. It cites costs and budgetary constraints. Good ol' Charley Patch comes to the rescue, sends a letter to the athletic director, the late Willis Casey, offering to coach the team for free, just to keep lacrosse alive. Patch says he never received a reply from the A.D.
One man in Raleigh who remembers Cockerton and Scott Nelson and the lacrosse era at State is the estimbale Frank Weedon, who was then the school's sports information director. He still serves as senior associate director of athletics. (Weedon's dedication to the place is unparralleled; in 42 years there, he has missed three football games).
"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."
No one had to travel to Canada to recruit Cockerton and Flintoff and friends.
"As I recall," Scott Nelson says, "they came down from Canada on their own....and just sort of stayed."
Cockerton, now 47 years old, married and father of three, executive director of teh Ontario Lacrosse Association and newly elected vice president of the International Lacrosse Federation, remembers it this way:
"In 1976 the box league folded in Canada and our national team made a trip to Florida. We were looking to go to the U.S. to get an education. We visited Cortland State. They weren't very interested. At N.C. State, Charley Patch was enthused. I got a full scholarship. I think Flintoff had a half. The first game we played for State we played Cortland. We won, 11-9, I had nine goals."
Will lacrosse resurface at North Carolina State some day?
"I really doubt that lacrosse is in our future," says Frank Weedon.
He's in a position to know.
This was an article that appeared in Lacrosse Magazine in the November/December issue of 2002. Article written by Bill Tanton.