April 28, 2010

Johns Hopkins Throws Freshmen into Fire

by Justin Feil | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

Tucker Durkin has started all 12 games on defense for Johns Hopkins, one of several freshmen who have seen significant playing time during a down season for the Jays.

There are times when the Johns Hopkins men’s lacrosse team has six freshmen on the field at once. Twenty-seven players saw time against Maryland, and 10 of them were freshmen.

“We played about five or six my second year here,” said Blue Jays head coach Dave Pietramala. “This is a lot.”

Tucker Durkin has started all 12 games on defense.

“I had goals to try to get some playing time,” said Durkin, a two-time US Lacrosse high school All-American. “I wasn’t really expecting to start. I thought if I worked hard, I could get some playing time.”

Chris Lightner has played in all 12 games at longstick middie. John Greeley and John Ranagan are two-thirds of the starting midfield with 10 starts between them. Zach Palmer has made eight starts, now plays on the second midfield and still plays some attack. He is among the leading scorers with 10 goals and four assists. Lee Coppersmith shows potential after moving onto the second midfield line. Pierce Bassett has started the last four games in goal and made a career-high 14 saves against Navy.

“They’re learning how to stand tall,” Pietramala said. “Pierce Bassett gets thrown in halfway through the Virginia game. We knew from the beginning he was a very talented kid.”

The Hopkins freshman class was rated the best in the country, but Pietramala didn’t expect so many of them to have to contribute as quickly as they have.

“There’s a part that you didn’t wish you had to play freshmen,” Pietramala said. “It’s forced us to simplify things. It’s forced us to move slower. You have to live with freshmen mistakes.”

The freshmen are embracing their chances to prove themselves against the nation’s top teams.

“It’s been awesome,” Durkin said. “I don’t think we were expecting to play this many young guys. As the season went on, we were getting more experienced and learning we can compete at this level. Coach is putting more trust in the freshmen.”

The Blue Jays have improved through the year, but back-to-back one-goal losses to Maryland and Navy, the latter after leading, 5-0, have them in unfamiliar territory at 5-7 this late in the year. They fell out of the USILA top 20 for the first time since the poll began in 1973, a streak of 367 weeks. The Blue Jays need to beat Towson on Wednesday and Loyola on May 8 to get to .500 and even be eligible for postseason play.

“If we have the good fortune to win both of those games,” Pietramala said, “our strength of schedule and RPI certainly has to put us in the discussion.”

If Towson remains at No. 6, the Blue Jays will have played six of the top seven ranked teams. They have made the NCAA field 38 straight years. Even with Hopkins’ struggles this season, nobody wants to see them as their first-round opponent. The Blue Jays, who despite their struggles boast the nation's 14th-best RPI according to an NCAA release Monday, grow more dangerous as their freshmen improve.

“We’ve played better in midfield,” Pietramala said. “I don’t think we’ve been horrible defensively this year. We’ve just played too much defense. The area where we haven’t been good is between the lines off the ground. Their poise and composure and ability to handle things have improved.

“We played Maryland in front of 25,000 and the first three goals are from freshmen. You see right there the growth and development. But they’re still freshmen and still making freshmen mistakes. We are competing against a lot of junior- and senior-rich teams right now.”

The Blue Jays lost last year’s leading scorer Chris Boland after two games. Midfielder Mark Goodrich was injured early, as was longstick middie Orry Michael.

“Early on,” Pietramala said, “we had some injuries and we were forced by necessity to play some of these guys, and the others have played based on performance. When some of the injured guys came back, these guys weren’t willing to surrender their position. We wouldn’t play them if we didn’t think they had the right to be there.”

The Hopkins freshmen have had to prove themselves every day in practice. Pietramala said talent isn’t as much of a factor in playing time as work ethic.

“I think they work hard, and they need to learn how to work harder,” he said. “That’s part of being a freshman. I can’t expect them in six months to have the thing down.”

Hopkins hasn’t played this many freshman since four started in the 2002 NCAA semifinals. Those four – Kyle Barrie, Peter LeSueur, Kyle Harrison and Chris Watson – were part of a special group.

“There are a lot of similarities between the two [classes] with the exception that there was a more veteran group around those guys to a certain extent,” Pietramala said. “Bobby Benson and Adam Doneger were there. We had really good leadership in that junior class.”

Johns Hopkins is looking for better leadership, and better play across the board. It’s the only way that they can win the final two games to hope for an at-large NCAA bid.

“I’d say it’s more our mindset that has improved the most,” Durkin said. “As a team, we know what we have to do and we’re going to try to get it done.”

“No one is crying for us. We are what we are,” Pietramala said. “We’re young. We have talented young kids. We need more from everybody.”

The Blue Jays freshmen will have a big say in where the Hopkins season ends. It’s been a rough year for Hopkins, but the future is bright with so many freshmen in the lineup.

“There are the positives and negatives,” Pietramala said. “The positive is these guys are getting so much experience and so much time, it’ll make a tremendous difference in their growth spurt from this year to next year.

“The record may not indicate it,” he added, “but I’ve seen a tremendous amount of progress from the young kids.”

Independent News & Notes

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