February 15, 2012

Season Preview (MD1): No. 3 Johns Hopkins

by Gary Lambrecht | LaxMagazine.com | Related: Jays Intend to 'Finish the Drill'

Midfielder John Ranagan highlights Johns Hopkins' heralded class of juniors.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

Johns Hopkins junior defenseman Chris Lightner has burned this memory of 2010 into his consciousness. He remembers the last game of his miserable freshman season and thinking about a final exam he had to take the next morning as the Blue Jays rolled north on a five-hour bus ride from Durham, N.C., to Baltimore. Hours earlier, Duke blasted the Blue Jays out of the NCAA tournament with an 18-5 rout in the first round.

"I'd prefer not to go through a season like [2010] ever again, but I guess it was a good experience in a way," Lightner said. "It was one of those, 'If it doesn't kill you, it makes you stronger.' It certainly has been an interesting couple of years around here."

The about-face maneuver performed by Johns Hopkins marked one of the more notable turnaround stories of 2011, when the Blue Jays reversed a 7-8 finish by going 13-3 and advancing to the NCAA tournament quarterfinals. First-team All-American midfielder John Ranagan, the best player in a heralded class of current juniors, received praise. But the recovery of the defense — a proud staple of the Dave Pietramala era — stood out perhaps the most.

Despite fielding an extremely young core of players, led by sophomores Lightner, close defenseman Tucker Durkin, goalie Pierce Bassett and freshman defenseman Jack Reilly, the Blue Jays communicated, moved and covered like old hands, while Bassett was a study in sound preparation and consistency in the net. The result? Johns Hopkins allowed just 7.25 goals per game — down from 9.6 goals a year earlier — against its typically nasty schedule, while producing second-team All-Americans in Durkin and Bassett.

Now the core of the defense is a group of grizzled veterans, with not a senior among them. Each of the foursome started all 16 games last spring. How far the Blue Jays go in 2012 largely will depend on how well they evolve.

Additionally, the pressure will increase on the close defense, as Johns Hopkins compensates for the loss of seniors Ben Smith and Orry Michael at long-stick midfielder, not to mention the loss of sophomore short-stick defender Paul Castronova to a season-ending knee injury he suffered in a charity flag football game in November.

"The defense's improvement had a lot to do with other things," said Pietramala, the Johns Hopkins alum who is considered the greatest defenseman ever to play the collegiate game. "Our faceoff play and ground ball play were very much improved. Our clearing game was a lot better. We made saves instead of just stops [that produced rebounds and second shots by the opposing offense]. And we did a much better job valuing possessions on offense. It all works together."

Working together is something the close defense did much better in 2011. In the Blue Jays' complex, man-to-man and matchup zone alignments, players slide fast to fill holes. They work especially hard at cutting off dodgers behind the goal and forcing shots into alleys that help Bassett shine.

The pieces have come together down low. Durkin excels at applying on-ball pressure and covering the opponent's top attackman. Lightner can push out and get physical, if necessary. Reilly is so athletic he can cover attackmen or bump up top to take on a midfield threat, as he did while neutralizing Shamel Bratton in a season-turning victory over Virginia last year. Bassett makes tons of solid, routine plays, while sprinkling in the occasional eye-opening save with outstanding reaction skills. He anticipates without guessing.

"We are able to be much more with our multiple slide packages now," Pietramala said. "The defense reflects our personality a little more. Guys have bought into the 'we' instead of the 'me' again."

This article appears in the February issue of Lacrosse Magazine, the flagship publication of US Lacrosse. Join US Lacrosse and its 400,000-plus members today to start your subscription to LM. Follow LaxMagazine.com all season long, and check out the Blue Jays' team page.

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