May 14, 2011

Dolente's Faceoff Prowess Puts Hopkins in NCAA Quarterfinals

by Corey McLaughlin | | Live Blog Replay

Matt Dolente, the No. 1 faceoff specialist in Division I this season, went 13-for-20, mostly against John Antoniades, in third-seeded Johns Hopkins' 12-5 NCAA tournament first-round victory over Hofstra.

Blog: Nobody Plays Keep-Away Like Dolente

BALTIMORE, Md. — Matt Dolente's success facing off this season may have reached a type of mythical status by now. So it was appropriate that when Kyle Wharton, Dolente's Johns Hopkins' teammate and roommate, attempted to explain his buddy's faceoff success Saturday, and all season, he used some unreal evidence in his reasoning.

"I would say his success this year is because of me," Wharton deadpanned after the third-seeded Blue Jays beat visiting Hofstra, 12-5, Saturday afternoon at Homewood Field, propelled by Dolente's 13-for-20 faceoff performance, perhaps the senior's most impressive effort this season given the timing and opponent. "Mentally, I help him out a lot. Our rooms are next to each other. We share a balcony. It goes from there."

"You gotta be kidding me," Johns Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala said immediately in response.

There is, of course, more reasoning behind how the slight Dolente (officially 5-foot-7, 165 pounds) had managed to enter Saturday's first round playoff game as the player with the nation's best faceoff win percentage (67 percent) — and how he left with the same first-place status by way of technical knockout of Hofstra's John Antoniades, who entered the game as the nation's second best faceoff man, winning 66 percent of his chances.

Dolente — steady, patient and successful — forced the Hofstra coaches to essentially pull Antoniades at points in the second half, when Johns Hopkins scored the game's final six goals to pull away from the Pride and advance to next weekend's NCAA quarterfinals. Dolente won five of six third-quarter faceoffs (four of them clean, one on an illegal procedure call) when the Blue Jays outscored the Pride, 4-1.

Johns Hopkins, now 13-2, will play the winner of Sunday's Denver-Villanova first round game in the quarterfinals Saturday, coincidentally at Hofstra. The unseeded Pride ended the season 13-3 and its all-time playoff record at Homewood is now 0-9. The reason for this defeat was simple, Pietramala said.

"In the end, it was about one stat: faceoffs," he said. "When you look at Hofstra and Hopkins, you're almost looking at a mirror image of each other to a point. We play defense similarly. We play offense similarly. I don't know if either of us is afraid to run, but I don't think either of us is winning a sprint. So the team that had the ball was the team that was going to have the opportunity to win this game."

Hopkins had the ball for what seemed like 75 percent of the time in the second half, Wharton (team-high three goals) said, when the Blue Jays broke open what was a tie game at 4 at halftime. After the key third quarter, Hofstra's defense grew tired and frustrated, and the offense became impatient. The Pride were called for all seven of their penalties in the fourth quarter; all of them of the ticked-off variety (unnecessary roughness, slashing and pushing).

Hofstra tried using backup faceoff men Cullen Cassidy and Zach Pall in the second half. That's when Dolente smelled blood in the water. After Dolente won the final four faceoffs of the first half (the first two on illegal procedure calls on Antoniades), Cassidy was run out in place of the Hofstra starter. He took and won the first draw of the second half. But Dolente won the next five against a combination of the three specialists.

"I don't remember an elongated possession in the second half for us," Hofstra coach Seth Tierney said. "A lot has to do with [Dolente] making sure that they had the ball. Our defense got tired, and then it forced us to push out. When you get tired, you start to foul a little bit. When you foul, you start to go man-down and before you know it. We couldn't stop digging and the hole was getting deeper."

Dolente's piling on was a welcome response to the game's opening faceoff, won by Antoniades to himself. He sprinted straight to the goal and beat Pierce Bassett with a shot six seconds into the first quarter to send Hofstra players and fans into an upset-minded frenzy.

"We just wanted to prevent the fast break," Johns Hopkins faceoff coach Jamison Koesterer said of Dolente's game plan. "Trying to tie [Antoniades] up, and keep them from creating transition, which is what happened with the first goal. That's exactly what we didn't want to happen. But then we got a couple violation calls because Matt was patient like he's been all year, and I think when they started scrambling for guys, they started throwing the other two guys out there, I thought Matt's confidence went up."

The matchup with the 5-foot-9, 165-pound Antoniades was interesting because he and Dolente are of similar small builds, and the "down, set" faceoff mechanic adopted by the NCAA rules committee for this seaso  has helped smaller faceoff specialists, Dolente and Koesterer both said after the Saturday's game. In the past, the "down, whistle" rule allowed players to roll into faceoffs. Bigger, stronger players had an advantage.

Adding the "set" call forces both faceoff players to remain motionless until the whistle is blown to begin play. Referees had been told prior to the season to vary

"In the end, it was about one stat: faceoffs."

Johns Hopkins head coach Dave Pietramala

their whistle cadence, as to not allow players to anticipate when they could start moving. The emphasis is now on how to win the faceoff, not how to beat the whistle.

"It helps me a little bit," Dolente said. "Last year with the 'down, whistle' rule it was very tough for referees to get faceoff guys to stop moving before they below the whistle. For me, bringing momentum into the faceoff isn't a huge benefit. I'm only 160, 165 pounds going against guys who are usually a bit bigger than that. Actually getting the guy stopped has helped me because it doesn't allow people to use their size against me as much."

Said Koesterer: "Last year, it wasn't 'down, set,' so guys were just rolling into it and the guys who were bigger in stature just used more of their body size and were dominating the game. Now with the set rule -- and this goes for anybody, not just Matt -- it's more technique, more patience. It's a cleaner draw. It's more fundamental than just brute strength."

Dolente was 50th in the country in winning percentage last year at .455. He won .445 percent as a freshman and .516 as a sophomore. But Koesterer is quick to point out it's not just a rule change that has made the difference for Dolente, who was the primary faceoff specialist on Team USA's U-19 team a few years ago. He said Dolente's preparation, watching film every day, and facing off in practice with Hopkins' three other faceoff specialists -- Peter Swerz, Mike Poppleton and Mike Faby -- in situations where the odds are stacked against him are the main factors.

"They do a really good job of giving Matt looks," Koesterer said. "I tell them to cheat. I try to make it as hard as I can on Matt during the week so come game day it's easier."

After many of Johns Hopkins' games this season, the media has requested to speak with Dolente postgame given his dominating performances. Each time, he deflects praise and instead gives it to others.

"I think I did that OK today, and was hearing the whistle well and felt like I was getting a good jump on the ball," he said after Saturday's game.

He also praised faceoff wing players Phil Castronova and Ben Smith, and others who at times have helped.

But the reality is Dolente won many of the faceoffs to himself Saturday, finishing with eight ground balls on his 13 faceoff wins.

"Dolente was winning them all, all clean from what I saw," Hofstra short-stick defense midfielder and faceoff wing player Steven DeNapoli said. "He's really good at picking the ball up after the ball is out. It was hard to stop him. He was bringing it forward. He was bringing it back. He was on his game today."

That was an astute observation. As for Wharton's made-up explanation, Dolente deadpanned back later when asked about his roommate's joke during the press conference: "He's real instrumental on my faceoff success, definitely."

News and Notes

Hofstra played without usual starting defenseman Cody Solaja, who broke his jaw in two places when he was hit in the head with a ball during practice leading up to the game this week. Sophomore Mark Mullen started in Solaja's place.

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