April 27, 2011

Petro Won't Let Jays Rest on Laurels

by Gary Lambrecht | LaxMagazine.com

Freshman Phil Castranova is a standout defensive midfielder for Johns Hopkins, but he knows better than to boot a ground ball. The Voice told him so.

It's late April, and Johns Hopkins men's lacrosse coach Dave Pietramala has that familiar, gravelly buzz in his tired, early-morning voice. Whether Hopkins, one of the more scrutinized Division I programs, is stumbling, as it has in recent years, or thriving, as the Blue Jays are once again, The Voice projects the same tone – restless, agitated.

"We're a good team, but there are a lot of really good teams out there. We're grinding it out, finding different ways to win," Pietramala said of his third-ranked Blue Jays. "When we play well, we can be very good. But we've got to stay dialed in. We still have much more growing to do. This group is not even close to complete."

Of course, life is better at Homewood, where the Blue Jays are playing with a youth-be-damned swagger and getting it done in ways the Hopkins faithful have not enjoyed lately. After dispatching Navy, 14-5, Hopkins is rolling with a five-game winning streak, during which it has averaged 12 goals.

The 2011 Blue Jays start six sophomores (attackman Zach Palmer, midfielders John Ranagan and John Greeley, defensemen Tucker Durkin and Chris Lightner and goalie Pierce Bassett) and two freshmen (defenseman Jack Reilly and midfielder Rob Guida), and are playing in my opinion for the sport's top Coach of the Year candidate.

Hopkins dragged a distinct whiff of mediocrity into this spring, after going a combined 17-13 in its previous two seasons. That included last year's 7-8 thud that marked the school's first losing finish since 1971, the last time it missed the NCAA tournament. For the last two seasons, the Blue Jays had been bounced hard and early from the playoffs by surrendering a combined 37 goals.

This is the best a Hopkins team has performed since the undefeated, 2005 squad finished off its fourth consecutive NCAA tournament final four appearance by winning the school's first title since 1987.

This is the most consistent, disciplined defense Hopkins has fielded since that senior-dominated, 16-0 team staged a weekly clinic. This team has shown the tenacity to come back from a five-goal deficit at Maryland and win in overtime, the poise to hold off late-charging Virginia, the toughness to win three, one-goal games during its current run. Hopkins has great shooters, hard-dodging midfielders, hitters, great passers, ground ball machines, transition speed and an unflappable goalie.

Yet, there is nothing that suggests comfort in The Voice, as Pietramala's team begins to prepare for Loyola as its homecoming opponent Saturday. Where an outsider might sense some greatness starting to happen, Pietralama sees a thin margin for error.

"We can't afford to look beyond [the next game]. Maybe we're too young to look beyond," Pietramala said. "We have to keep putting our noses in the dirt, knowing we can be buried any day. I want us to win, and get hungrier for the next win. Play great for 30 minutes, play great for the next 30. We haven't done that."

If you watched the Blue Jays' destruction of the visiting, out-classed Midshipmen on Saturday night – a game during which Hopkins scored the first 10 goals and did not allow Navy's first score for nearly 34 minutes – you might have caught a classic Pietramala moment. Early in the fourth quarter, Navy midfielder Nikk Davis had just scored a goal, in the middle of a 4-1 Navy "run" that would trim the Blue Jays' lead to 13-3. The game essentially was over, the home crowd of nearly 5,000 getting a little bored.

And there, in the timeout huddle, The Voice was turning heads.

"I'm upset after [Navy's] third goal, and [the players] are looking at me like I've got six heads," said Pietramala, who recalled the days when he roamed the landscape for Hopkins as arguably the most dominant defenseman of any era. "If my guy didn't have a goal in the first half, I didn't want him having a goal in the second. I didn't want him getting anything, ever. That's a mentality we've got to develop."

Senior faceoff man Matt Dolente is well-versed in those Pietramala teaching moments. He is one of the seniors who help the underclassmen understand and interpret The Voice. Youngsters such as standout freshman defensive midfielder Phil Castranova, who booted an easy ground ball on the faceoff wing during a recent, 11-6 win over Albany that was not one of Hopkins' finer efforts.

"Coach was getting ready to rip [Castranova's] head off," Dolente said. "Sometimes, as a senior, it's best to get between Coach and one of the younger guys and kind of mediate that relationship. I reminded Phil that he had gotten 20 other ones for me and he's going to get the next one. We've played with an edge, and a lot of that comes from Coach. We have guys playing above their age."

Whether the Blue Jays' continue to play that way remains to be seen. One thing is certain. The Voice will not allow them to feel too impressed with themselves, even as they continue to impress.

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