February 9, 2012

Johns Hopkins Looking to Finish the Job

by Matt Forman | LaxMagazine.com

Midfielder John Ranagan has seen time on faceoffs in practice as the Jays seek to replace Matt Dolente, a key cog in a 13-3 finish last season.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

Dave Pietramala last pressed his team to "finish the drill," during Johns Hopkins' 2005 national title run. It was the slogan the team stood by, defining Hopkins' first championship in nearly 20 years.

Guess what? It's back. "Finish" will be the Blue Jays' 2012 rallying cry — as a nod to the 2005 team (and the 2002 team that originated the term). It serves as a reminder for everything they do.

That's why, even though it wasn't live game action, Hopkins' scrimmage against Penn State last Saturday bothered the 12th-year head coach, when he was asked Wednesday about early-season takeaways at the Baltimore-area coaches' media day.

"I felt fine about the first half. We talked about winning the first five minutes of the third quarter, and I thought we did that. And then, I thought we relaxed," Pietramala said. "One of the things we've continued to talk about is finishing the drill. Finishing practice, finishing games, finishing a lift. Finishing everything. We didn't finish the scrimmage. And that was disappointing, considering how much we had talked about it. So when we extended our lead to 6-3, we didn't continue to do the things necessary. Give credit to Penn State. They did."

Coming off a 13-3 season that ended in an NCAA quarterfinal loss against Denver — what Pietramala called at the time "a bad ending to a great year" — Hopkins has unfinished business they hope to address. Underlying the message about "finishing," Pietramala has implemented another theme for this season: "Do your job."

"It's really simple, but we say it every day. Do your job," he said. "You don't have to do more, and you can't do less. Just do your job. You don't need to make any spectacular plays, or try to do something we're not asking you to do. We're telling you, 'Here's your job. We need you to do it.' It's in everything we do. We've talked about it everywhere. Do your job in class. Do your job in school. Do your job in the community. Do your job in the weight room. Do your job on the lacrosse field. It's a pretty simple statement, but it needs to define who we are and how we do our business. We're not asking for more than them to just do the job they're being asked to do."

And if everyone does their job, then...

"We'll find ourselves in a pretty good spot," said Pietramala, finishing the sentence.

The Blue Jays play their second preseason scrimmage Saturday against Cornell before opening up Feb. 17 against Towson, giving Pietramala a week-and-a-half to prepare for when it counts — and make sure his team finishes the drill.

Until then, Pietramala discussed several other topics related to the preseason at Wednesday's media event. Here are some of the highlights:

Faceoff Focus

Faceoff specialist Matt Dolente played a crucial role in Hopkins' success last year, winning 66.7 percent (194 of 291) of draws to help the Blue Jays control possession. He won about 46 percent of his attempts in 2010, and his year-over-year improvement was a significant factor in the team's growth last year. With Dolente graduated, Hopkins is still looking to solidify the situation at faceoff. Senior Marshall Burkhart and juniors Mike Poppleton and John Ranagan are competing to be the main guy, but Pietramala said he wouldn't shy away from a by-committee approach, if necessary.

"It's really tough to evaluate where you are at the faceoff X in practice because that is such a technique-driven thing. You really can't," Pietramala said. "When you think you're really good there it's, well, 'Maybe the other guys aren't so good.' When you face someone else, there's no hiding. That was really one of the best things, was to have an opportunity to have three of our faceoff guys go against someone else.

"I felt like we didn't do as well at the draw as we would have liked, but we got improved wing play. In the end, the best part we took away from the scrimmage was a film. We have a working tool against someone else to say here's what we're doing well, here's what we're not doing well."

Defensive Midfield Mix

Pietramala didn't use the words "weakness" or "concern" when discussing his defensive midfield. Instead, he opted for "unproven."

"Just like the faceoff X, we're really going to need some guys to step up," Pietramala said. "That's an unproven area for us."

"We feel like we found our pole with Jack, and no one has seen him there yet."

-- Johns Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala on Jack Reilly's position switch

Since fall ball, Pietramala has stressed the importance of finding an identity at the defensive midfield, where Hopkins graduated three players and lost another due to injury. Long-stick midfielders Ben Smith and Orry Michael, and short-stick Tim Donovan, were lost to graduation. Phil Castronova suffered a season-ending knee injury while playing in a charity flag football game in November.

Some of the question marks have found answers. Sophomore Jack Reilly, who played close defense last year, is going to see significant time at the pole.

"We feel like we found our pole with Jack, and no one has seen him there yet," Pietramala said. "But we have other guys that can fill the role, so we're comfortable with where we are. We've got Mike Pellegrino, a freshman who comes with a pretty nice pedigree. He is our kind of guy. He's a pitbull. He's a worker. He's a guy that when he makes a mistake is so disappointed that he let the team down, but he's going to do his best not to do it again."

Senior captain Burkhart should fill Donovan's role at one short-stick middie spot. "And with the loss of Phil Castronova, we're looking for someone else to answer the bell. We've got a group of guys in the mix: Nikhon Schuler has a short-stick now, Matt Leighty's got a short-stick, and James Malm is a guy that didn't play much last year, but we feel athletically fits the part."

Second-line offensive middie Eric Ruhl also will miss the 2012 season for an undisclosed reason. Ruhl is not listed on Hopkins' roster and has not transferred.

"We had a young man, Eric Ruhl, take a personal leave of absence from school for this semester. Nothing academic. He was not asked to leave, it's just a personal situation. We were very supportive of him in his decision. He has every intention of returning to campus in the fall," Pietramala said. "But now you need someone else to step up, like Eric did a year ago for one of our graduates. Now someone else needs to step up for him."

Goalie Growth

With Reilly making the move to pole — he played at the top of the box against former Virginia midfielder Shamel Bratton in last year's meeting — senior Gavin Crisafulli and freshman Rob Enright are competing for the third close spot next to returning starters Tucker Durkin and Chris Lightner, both juniors.

A fellow member of the junior class is back in the cage for the Blue Jays. Pietramala said he's looking for Pierce Bassett, who allowed 7.07 goals against and posted a .570 save percentage, to command — not demand — Hopkins' system-oriented unit.

"The nicest part there is you have a proven commodity," Pietramala said.

Bassett's development, along with having a full year of experience under his belt, should allow the defense to be more multiple, getting in and out of sets more effectively.

"Pierce had a great fall and a really good winter, and he has had a good preseason. I don't think he had one of his better days against Penn State, but you give Penn State credit. They took some good shots and put them in good places," Pietramala said. "But the nice thing is, you know what you're getting from Pierce. The scrimmage is over and he's the last guy to leave the locker room. He's the first guy up in my office on Monday morning wanting to watch film, and he was back Monday afternoon saying, 'Let's get back on the racquetball court and work on some things.'

"I don't think he's guy that ever rests on his laurels. He's always trying to find a way to improve and help our team. What I really respect about him is that I think he's a standards-setter for our team. We need that."

Senior Strength

Freshman Wells Stanwick is expected to split time with sophomore Brandon Benn at Hopkins' third attack spot.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

Much has been made of Hopkins' junior class and its quest to "restore order at Homewood Field," and Lacrosse Magazine certainly did its part to profess the group's greatness by featuring them in the February issue. Pietramala doesn't disagree with that notion, but he made a point of drawing attention to his seniors.

"When you look at quality teams, when you look at championship teams, the thing that's usually a common denominator is quality senior leadership," Pietramala said. "Quite honestly, while the junior class is very impactful on game day, a class that's going to play a critical role in our success is the senior class. We've got a couple seniors that play — Chris Boland, Mark Goodrich, Marshall Burkhart — and then there are a number of guys that don't have as great a role on game day as maybe they would like, but their impact is felt throughout the week of practice. We've really tried to focus on how important those guys are to this team in setting the standard, to setting the example, and to continue to stay the course. Even though they may not feel like their role is as dramatic as the other guys, their role is equally as important to this team."

Atypical Attack

Losing a player who scored nearly 100 goals over the last three seasons would change the dynamic of any team, but Kyle Wharton's graduation could substantially impact the way Hopkins runs its offense. Wharton had an impressive left-handed cannon for a shot and was one of the toughest players to defend in the country.

"We're going to be different. When you lose a guy like Kyle, you lose a guy who stretches the defense. So we'll change things up," Pietramala said. "But for our attack, this is as skilled a group as we've had. We're going to ask a little bit more of them, to take some of the burden off the midfielders. Asking them more in terms of initiating, carrying the ball. A lot of that has been generated through the midfield, and we're going to try to do that, as well as generate some more offense through the attack."

Boland, a fifth-year senior who tied Wharton for the team lead in goals with 34, and Palmer, who totaled 47 points on 22 goals and 25 assists, will pace the attack. Freshman Wells Stanwick and sophomore Brandon Benn are expected to split time at the third spot.

"Both have ability, but they're very different," Pietramala said. "We've really been pleased with their growth and development. Benn actually can extend the defense, so we're hoping he can give us a little bit of what we lost there. But both possess a tremendous skill set."

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