The Vault: Stan Cockerton, NC State (April 1979)

Stan Cockerton, pictured on the cover of our April 1979 edition, was inducted into the NC State Athletic Hall of Fame in 2016.

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Hell hath no fury like a Canadian scorned.

The Cortland men’s lacrosse team learned that lesson the hard way April 6, 1977, when Stan Cockerton torched the Red Dragons with nine goals to lead NC State to a 17-12 win in Raleigh, N.C.

And so the legend began.

“I was kind of motivated after getting blown off by Cortland,” Cockerton said Thursday, reflecting on the origins of a Hall of Fame playing career that included an appearance on the cover of our April 1979 edition.

Cockerton, a box lacrosse player from Ontario, wanted to play college field lacrosse and pursue a degree in physical education at Cortland. But he was a fish out of water, an undersized kid with an oversized wooden stick he did not yet know how to wield other than as an instrument to deliver illegal crosschecks. If the original National Lacrosse League had not folded in 1976, the Oshawa Green Gaels forward might never have ventured beyond the barns north of the border.

Absent the opportunity to play professionally, Cockerton and Gaels goalie Bobby Flintoff ventured south to play in an exhibition event in Florida, which included a scrimmage between Cortland and NC State. The pipeline from Canada to the NCAA was not then what it is today. Cornell had Mike French and Johns Hopkins had Dave Huntley, but coaches rarely searched beyond the U.S. hotbeds for recruits.

“At that time in Canada, it really wasn’t something you thought about doing,” Cockerton said. “Field lacrosse was totally alien.”

Cockerton’s conversation with Cortland coach Chuck Winters lasted only a few minutes. Winters was not interested.

NC State coach Charlie Patch, on the other hand, saw in Cockerton and Flintoff a combination that could elevate the Wolfpack from ACC afterthought to national championship contender.

In the brief but fascinating history of NC State’s decade-long run as an NCAA Division I program, Patch played the unlikely role of patriarch. After Col. Robert E. Conroy, a military history instructor who had played lacrosse at UMass, started the team in 1973, NC State handed the reins to Patch, an associate physical education teacher. As a Cortland graduate, the university determined, Patch must have known something about the sport.

“Believe it or not,” Patch told the Wilmington Star-News in 2011, “the first game I coached at NC State was the first full lacrosse game I’d ever seen.”

The Wolfpack stumbled to a 12-33 record and went winless in the ACC from 1973-76. Cockerton saw a situation where he could contribute immediately. He did just that, building on his sparkling debut against Cortland with a 52-goal freshman season.

NC State’s fortunes reversed almost immediately upon Cockerton’s arrival in 1977, rising as high as No. 6 in the national rankings during his career there and advancing to the NCAA tournament under former Virginia assistant Larry Gross in 1979. Patch thought the Wolfpack deserved a coach who knew the game better and had stepped aside, but Cockerton said Patch provided an unparalleled lacrosse experience.

“Our first two years there were magical years, the two best years of my lacrosse history,” Cockerton said. “Everybody from the top player to the 40th player, we were all equal. We all practiced hard, played hard and partied hard. It was just a crazy mixture of players.”

Cockerton, a three-time All-American attackman, scored 196 goals in four seasons at NC State from 1977-80. His 4.39 goals per game still rank No. 1 in NCAA Division I history. He also had 86 assists while averaging 6.36 points per game, No. 2 all-time behind Siena’s Tony Asterino.

“After beating Cortland that first game, people started to believe we could actually win. We kind of built on that,” Cockerton said, citing wins over Duke, North Carolina and Virginia. “We became the Cinderella team.”

NC State appeared poised to build on that momentum with the arrival of another star attackman, Tim Nelson, in 1982. But the advent of Title IX and the expenses associated with recruiting and sustaining a roster comprised entirely of student-athletes from outside of North Carolina brought an abrupt end to the program.

Nelson transferred to Syracuse, became a three-time All-American attackman, led the Orange to the first of their 11 NCAA championships the following year and was inducted into the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 2012. Two years later, Cockerton joined him there.

Despite the lacrosse boom and rise of participation in North Carolina, NC State has never seriously entertained reinstating the sport. Boo Corrigan’s arrival as athletic director last year stoked some conversation surrounding the subject. His father, the late Gene Corrigan, was a National Lacrosse Hall of Fame coach and a major lacrosse advocate during his tenure as ACC commissioner. His brother, Kevin, is the longtime coach at Notre Dame. His wife, Kristin, starred at Virginia. Together, they led the campaign to launch a women’s lacrosse program at Army while he was the AD there.

But earlier this year, even before the pandemic, Corrigan told Sports Illustrated it would take a deep-pocketed donor to foot the bill for men’s and women’s lacrosse at NC State. He cited the example of Terrence Pegula’s $88 million donation to Penn State for men’s and women’s ice hockey. Commercial airline executive David Neeleman is a major financial backer of the Utah men’s lacrosse program that got off the ground last year.

“Sure, it would be something great to add personally,” Corrigan said in February. “But it's not Boo Corrigan University, it's NC State University.”

Oddly, NC State became something of a footnote in Cockerton’s lacrosse story. His shining moment as a player came in the 1978 world championship final, when he scored the winning goal in overtime to lift Canada to an upset win over the U.S. in Manchester, England. French and Huntley also starred for that Canadian team. Flintoff was the goalie.

Cockerton never did play professionally. He became a coach and ambassador, founded the Heritage Cup, became executive director of the Ontario Lacrosse Association and played an instrumental role in the growth of the former Federation of International Lacrosse (now World Lacrosse) as the international governing body’s president.

Still, Cockerton pines for the return of the Wolfpack almost as much as he does the return of lacrosse to the Olympic Games. Like Boston College, Bowling Green, Butler, Michigan State, Morgan State and UConn — all of which have fielded Division I programs in the NCAA era — NC State has a passionate group of alumni that would love to see the sport’s varsity status restored at their alma mater.   

“NC State should have a lacrosse team. It would be great for the sport. It would be great for the ACC,” said Cockerton, who was inducted into the school’s hall of fame in 2016. “You want a reason to go back. And for us [alumni], it’s lacrosse. We did have a good history. The youth programs in North Carolina are growing like crazy now. It’s a good fit.”

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