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NIMS PUTS OWN TWIST ON 'UNBELIEVABLE'

TIMES EXECUTIVE SPORTS EDITOR
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Perhaps if Kenny Nims was in his living room last Memorial Day, watching the Syracuse lacrosse team in the NCAA championship game on his television, he would have hit the off button on the remote, too.


It's an understandable reaction. SU had trailed in last May's finale against Cornell the entire game. The Big Red seemed to have the Orange in its clutches, practically dictating each move SU made.


Cornell led by three goals with under four minutes to play in regulation. Fans had a right to give up. Even the pro-Syracuse faithful in Foxboro, Mass., was losing hope.


"Even at the game, you could see people starting to leave," said Nims of the Gillette Stadium crowd. "They thought it was over."


But Nims didn't have that luxury.


Dressed in Syracuse blue, orange and white, and carrying the title of All-American, the Watertown native and SU senior captain proceeded to begin and end one of the most incredible sequences of plays in the history of the Orange program. That series ended in Nims's game-tying score with 4.5 seconds left in regulation. In overtime, SU's Cody Jamieson scored the game-winner, and the Orange had its second straight NCAA Division I men's lacrosse title, 10-9.


Nims said he didn't hear any stories about fans turning their cars around on the turnpike and heading back to the stadium. But he added he wouldn't be surprised if that had happened.


"I heard from people who said, 'I thought you guys were done. I went out and mowed the lawn, and turned the TV back on and couldn't believe it,'" Nims said.


In the days that followed, SU's game-tying goal was replayed across the nation. No doubt, the goal was rehashed in coaches' offices and at lacrosse camps and among lacrosse fans here in Watertown. Nims guesses that it might be the game he remembers from his career decades into the future.


"People say it was the most amazing game they ever saw," he said.


That game has produced one more honor. For Nims's ability to create another definition for the word "unbelievable," one colored in Orange, he is the Times' Sports Performer of the Year for 2009.


Nims has experience in suspending disbelief. Two years prior, as a sophomore, the Orange went 5-8, one of its worst seasons in nearly 40 years. Nims was embarrassed. He faced all of the "what happened" questions that summer, then banded together with his teammates the following season and won SU's 10th national crown.


Prior to his senior season, SU faced the familiar criticisms of a team trying to repeat. But Nims and his teammates added a second championship ring. When he looks back on his SU career, that's what he will remember with fondness.


"We had a great bunch of guys," he said. There was no complaining. Everyone was focused on the national championship. And a lot of people thought we couldn't do it. They said we lost a lot of players, we lost (Mike) Leveille. So it made it special when we won.


"We knew all the work we had done, all the training, the running in the rain and the snow."


In fact, Nims's favorite game from last season is the first one, a 22-3 annihilation of Providence. It marked the end of preparation and the beginning of competition.


"Just because you look forward to it for so long," said the competitive Nims. "It seems weird to say. I mean it was Providence and we killed them. But I don't know, I always remember that first game."


Syracuse proceeded to win game after game, finishing the season 16-2. Nims led the team with 74 points (32 goals, 42 assists). He took charge in the postseason, totaling 15 points in four games and capturing the tournament's Most Outstanding Player honor.


"That's what you're supposed to do as a senior and a captain," he said. "We had a lot of young players on the team and it was up to me and others to show them."


As for the most-talked-about scoring play of the entire NCAA lacrosse season, Nims continues to give credit to his teammates, especially Mike Abbott, whose pass somehow found Nims in front of the crease.


The breakdown:


n Cornell holds the ball in its own territory with just 27 seconds left in the game. The Big Red sends the ball deep into SU territory where Cornell's Max Moyer catches it with 20 seconds left.


n Nims is there to dive and poke the ball from Moyer's grasp. Another Cornell player picks up the ball, but SU's Joel White knocks it free again.


n The Orange's Stephen Keogh snags the ball and throws it over his back while being checked to the ground. Abbott catches the ball and steams toward the Cornell goal.


n Abbott, surrounded and spun around by three Cornell defenders, off his feet, and twisting away from the goal, flips a no-look, over-the-shoulder pass that finds Nims.


n Nims catches the ball at the crease, leaps and while prone to the ground, shoots the ball around Cornell goalie Jake Myers to tie the game 9-9.


Suddenly, no one is mowing their lawn anymore.


"You're in the moment, it's kind of all reaction," Nims said. "But we train all year for those things. When you look back at the play, it's amazing all the things that people did for that goal. That's the enjoyment for me, is watching that played back with the coaches, because we knew what went into that."


After SU had clinched, Nims said he had "like 100 messages on my phone." The Orange enjoyed its traditional tailgate party with family and then celebrated some more. They returned to SU and celebrated even more.


A week later, Nims was a professional lacrosse player competing for the Chicago Machine, along side Watertown native Brendan Loftus. During Nims's senior year at SU, he played with Watertown's Greg Niewieroski, who scored a goal for the Orange in the title game. That on-field connection to his hometown is important to him.


Now, Nims and Niewieroski have graduated. The SU roster lacks a north country link after the Powells and Coffmans, and now Nims and Niewieroski have led the program to national titles. Carthage's Thomas Grimm is on his way to SU for the 2011 season. But the north country connection that began in Carthage and has migrated to Watertown has area fans wondering who, and which community, will be next.


"When I was a kid, I grew up following the Powells and the Coffmans," said Nims, who is now looking for work in his area of study, marketing and finance. "Now it's good to see the kids in Watertown following us, looking up to me. You see more kids playing lacrosse. You see it at South Jeff or General Brown. I don't know (who will be next). In lacrosse, all you need is one good season for people to take notice, and then things will take off."


One good season. Or one good play.

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