60 Years of Denison Lacrosse (Part 1: 1953-1982)
By Andrew Luftglass '13
Denison Sports Information Assistant
It was just a typical day for Bill Mason in 1956, shooting hoops in Livingston Gym. Never one to back down from a challenge, Mason '57 received an offer that day from head lacrosse coach, Rix Yard, to play a game that he had only heard of in passing.
"Dr. Yard came out on the basketball court and said, 'Mase, you're probably not going to play a lot of basketball here, but I'll make a heck of a lacrosse player out of you.' Mason continued, "to show you how good I wasn't, I had the distinction of being the only junior playing junior varsity basketball."
Yard handed Mason a stick, gloves and a ball, and instructed him to throw the ball against the fieldhouse wall. Mason was told to report back to Yard as soon as he could pass and catch.
"I went back to him and said I can pass and catch, and he said you're going to be a midfielder," said Mason. "The first game I ever saw, I played in."
Big Red lacrosse was a project in and of itself in the first few years, and Mason's path to learning the game was typical of many players of that era. After two seasons as a club team in 1951-52, Denison entered its inaugural season of varsity lacrosse competition in 1953 with a patch-work group. Even the coach who preceded Yard, Ken Meyer, came over from the football program with no lacrosse experience. Both Meyer and his players learned the game as they went along.
"That first season, it was pretty ragged," said Bud Miller '53, one of the program's original members and the first team captain. "It was just a matter of getting the team formed and doing the best you could with what you had."
Miller played high school lacrosse in Deerfield, Mass. and was one of the few experienced players Denison had. Otherwise, the Big Red roster was populated with athletes drawn from other sports.
"If you knew somebody in your house that was a pretty decent athlete and wasn't playing something else in the spring, you tried to talk to him about playing lacrosse," said Miller.
The Big Red went 0-7 in its first varsity season, but made a push to legitimize the program by hiring Yard in '54. Though he brought the necessary experience to the program, having played both lacrosse and football at the University of Pennsylvania, Yard did not have instantaneous success with the Big Red. In Yard's first season at the helm, Denison again finished 0-7.
Despite the slow start, Yard gradually parlayed his teaching ability and knowledge of the game into victories. Denison's new leader got the program its first win in the opening game of the 1955 season, edging Ohio State 6-5. The Big Red's record steadily improved over Yard's 10 seasons at the helm. DU saw its first winning season in '59 (6-5), its first 10-win season in '62 (10-1) and an undefeated record the following year (12-0).
Yard's 1963 team is one of just two teams in Denison lacrosse history to post a perfect campaign and is heralded as one of the best squads in program history. Led in the back by two-time All-American defenseman Jim Crum ('63), the Big Red held its opponents to just 4.3 goals per game.
Another two-time All-American, Chuck O'Connell ('65), led the Big Red offense. The team's scoring leader struck for 23 goals and 25 assists that season. More often than not, freshman John Beatson '66 fed O'Connell the ball, delivering 31 assists during the perfect season. Beatson, another Denison Hall of Famer, remains the program's career leader in assists with 135, a noteworthy accomplishment considering the offensive growth of the game over the last 20 years.
The perfect season in 1963 was Yard's last at Denison. After compiling a record of 56-42-3, the coach who took only a decade to turn a start-up program into a winner, moved on to an Athletic Director position at Tulane University. Denison retained its success over the next two years under one-year coaches Lynn Doherty and Mason. Doherty led Denison to a 10-3 season, with the team's only losses coming by two goals or fewer. Mason, who was also an assistant coach under Yard and Doherty, guided the Big Red to an 11-1 record and a title as co-Midwest Champions.
After the brief stints of Doherty and Mason, Denison turned to Ferris "Tommy" Thomsen Jr. in 1966. In just his second year on the job, Thomsen led Denison to another undefeated season (12-0). The next year, Thomsen's squad went 10-1 and was voted the college division national champions.
Thomsen's early success more than secured his job. He stayed at the helm of Big Red lacrosse for 25 years and still holds the distinction as the program's longest tenured coach.
"He was a very patient teacher," said Steve Nazaruk '73 of Thomsen. "He allowed us to grow at our own pace."
The Big Red mentor took a personal approach to the game, inviting players into his home and introducing them to his family. Every four years, Thomsen took his team to England to play European teams on a three-week tour. As a result of his hospitality and kind nature, Thomsen became revered by generations of Big Red lacrosse players. Even after their graduation, Denison lacrosse alumni wanted to stay close to their coach.
"We spent a great deal of time together," said Nazaruk, who later coached alongside Thomsen. "We just became friends. We could talk about anything we wanted to."
Thomsen's leadership skills and likable personality quickly translated into wins. His team dominated in nearly every game during its undefeated season in 1967. Denison won its first 11 contests by an average of 7.5 goals per game before squeezing out an overtime victory over Oberlin on the final day of the season.
"It was a thrill," said Mason, who stayed with the program as an assistant coach under Thomsen. "We were loaded with good talent and Tommy really knew the game."
The Big Red's success hinged on its goaltender, Denison Hall of Famer Bob Martin '69. A primary subject in a Sports Illustrated article about the Big Red, Martin posted save percentage numbers that may never be touched by another Big Red keeper.
During the undefeated 1967 season, he recorded a nearly unimaginable .800 save percentage. Martin then turned around and stopped opponents at a clip of .771 in the '68 national championship campaign. Those marks still stand as the best single seasons by any Denison goaltender. Martin's success might come as less of a surprise when you consider that Thomsen was an All-American goalie at Penn.
"Our goalies always knew how to play goalie, I'll tell ya," said Mason.
Thomsen built more than just goaltenders during his time with the Big Red. All told, 32 different Denison lacrosse players earned All-American honors under Thomsen's watch. Out of that group, three were named to the first team.
Two of those first team All-Americans, Paul Doty and Dick Rieg, played together on Thomsen's 1968 team. Doty's 39 assists that year are good for third on Denison's single season record list, but he also holds the top spot on that list with 46 helpers in the previous season. The following year, when the Big Red won its final 12 games of the season after dropping the opening two, Thomsen coached another first team All-American in Jerry Stacy.
In addition to individual accolades, Denison enjoyed extensive team success under Thomsen. Battling a congenital spinal deformity that led him to coach with a cane for many years, Thomsen led the Big Red to 11 conference championships from 1966-90. At the end of his career, Thomsen held a lifetime record of 255-97 with the Big Red.
Over the course of 29 years, Yard and Thomsen had turned the Big Red into a Midwest lacrosse power. The two mentors helped legitimize what was once a makeshift program, and turned it into a giant-killer. Denison could now hang with the best, and wins over top-ranked programs such as Syracuse, Notre Dame and Duke, proved it. In 1982, however, Denison lacrosse would get a true opportunity to prove its national worth, with its first NCAA Tournament appearance.
To learn more about Denison lacrosse history, stay tuned for part two of this feature story, which will cover Big Red lacrosse from 1982 to present day.