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February 9, 2011

Hopkins Has Slid; Can Jays Recover?

by Gary Lambrecht | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online | Lambrecht Archive

Kyle Wharton will be a big presence again on the Johns Hopkins attack. The Blue Jays' hope a healthy, slimmed-down Chris Boland will complement him well.

© John Strohsacker/

Through all of its unpleasant, recent times, the Johns Hopkins men's lacrosse program has held on to one significant, living piece of history. The Blue Jays have gone to 39 consecutive NCAA tournaments, extending the nation's longest active streak of qualifying for the postseason in any Division I sport.

But even that impressive run of success can't hide how dicey things have gotten on the Homewood campus, where the school's signature sport is about to enter its 124th season.

To get a sense of how much slippage has occurred at Hopkins, consider that the Blue Jays have not won a playoff game since edging Brown in overtime in the first round of the 2009 tournament. Over the past two seasons, Hopkins has posted a 17-13 record, which places it just north of the official Mediocrity Line. During those same two years, the Blue Jays have a 1-8 record against Syracuse and Atlantic Coast Conference competition.

How the season ends matters tremendously at Charles Street and University Parkway, where Hopkins has earned 44 national championships, including nine NCAA titles, two of which were won in 2005 and 2007. Again, the last two years tell the story of decline.

In 2009, Virginia dropped a 19-8, quarterfinal round embarrassment on the Blue Jays. Last year, Duke started its national title run by dispatching Hopkins, 18-5, thus handing Hopkins its first losing season (7-8) since 1971 – the last year it failed to qualify for the NCAAs.

And, as young as Hopkins was in 2010 – when it started four freshmen – the Blue Jays are even younger in 2011. Twenty-five players are either freshmen or sophomores, and 94 of its 227 points graduated in the forms of midfielder Michael Kimmel and attackman Steven Boyle.

Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala, entering his 11th year at his alma mater, said the Blue Jays have taken a healthy, honest look in the mirror and have been addressing their afflictions since last fall.

"Everything starts in practice, and one thing this team has shown is that it's more committed to practicing, more invested in it," Pietramala said. "Our behavior had to change. We just didn't practice well last year, and it showed. We were like a veteran team that figures everything is going to be all right, once we start playing games. Then, everything is going to be all right, once we get into the tournament.

"Well, it never was all right. We didn't play smart enough or with enough consistency. We just weren't good enough in the areas of defense, ground balls and faceoffs. We can't dwell on the past, but we had better learn from it."

Some lessons have been painfully clear. For starters, the Blue Jays have lacked a true, go-to guy on offense since midfielder Paul Rabil graduated in 2008. Rabil had picked up where Kyle Harrison left off in 2005. And, while Hopkins shot a solid 34 percent as a team in 2010 and averaged a solid 10.1 goals per game, the Blue Jays averaged a modest 29.8 shots per game and routinely were out-shot by opponents.

That speaks to a host of problems, most of them in the middle of the field and on the back end, most of them pointing to a lack of athleticism and skill.

The Blue Jays won just 47 percent of their faceoff attempts, lost the ground ball battle too often and played too much defense as a result. And, with unsteady goaltending and a lack of takeaway ability, Hopkins surrendered 9.6 goals per game and was unsuccessful in an astounding – for Hopkins standards – 50 percent of its man-down chances.

You can blame it on youth, recruiting misses, a lack of discipline, coaching, a perennially brutal schedule or all of the above.

But it's hard to deny that a Hopkins recovery, or a failure to recover, will be a story worth watching in 2011.

Will sophomores such as goalie Pierce Bassett, defenseman Tucker Durkin and midfielders John Ranagan, John Greeley and Lee Coppersmith become the foundation of something exciting? Will new assistant coach Jamie Koesterer inject new life into the faceoff game? Will senior attackman Chris Boland, whose season-ending knee injury sparked the slide early in 2010, return with his slimmed-down, 185-pound frame and be the lightning rod Hopkins so needs around the crease to complement sharp-shooting senior Kyle Wharton?

The answers officially start coming on Feb. 19, when Hopkins opens at Towson.

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