March 29, 2012

UnCensered: Does Hopkins Have The Right Stuff For Title?

by Joel Censer |

John Ranagan has no problem challenging bulky defensemen one-on-one, but he can also play in Johns Hopkins' half-field sets.
© John Strohsacker/

What a weekend. Thankfully, the highs were on SportsCenter display. Johns Hopkins' Zach Palmer did his Canadian best to one-up his goal last year against Maryland by chucking the ball (one-handed, no less) into the net at goal-line extended against Virginia. The Cavaliers Matt White raised the stakes, one-timing a Steele Stanwick crease feed by putting it behind his back. Even on a rain-soaked grass field, North Carolina miniature freshman attackman Joey Sankey showed off the turbo jets when he slithered past a couple Maryland defenders for his third goal of the game. After taking down Syracuse 11-10 in the Carrier Dome, Villanova served notice to the rest of the Big East that this isn't the same Orange squad that generally runs and guns past the rest of the conference.

There was of course also the low, which was given similar SportsCenter treatment. I don't want to get too self-indignant or self-righteous, and it's worth nothing that fans (me included) live for bruising, physical ACC battles. Still, Kevin Cooper's late-game, high hit on UNC defensive midfielder Greg McBride was pretty indefensible, and one of the most flagrant fouls since Virginia's Bray Malphrus lined up Billy Bitter at the Big City Classic in 2010. 

As for McBride's retaliation, there's a difference between channeling your inner Ryan Wade and being the kind of pesky, in-your-face defensive midfielder that every coach wants and slashing a guy after he accidentally hits you with his stick on a shot, and trying to gang tackle someone when they take a cheap shot. It has been said before, but after Rob Guida had his helmet removed by a Wahoo's Pat Harbeson on a helmet-to-helmet hit, he had the proper response. He caught the ball on extra man and rocketed it top shelf.

Some other, hopefully less soap-boxy, thoughts from last weekend:

An Ode to John Ranagan

In Hopkins' OT win over Virginia, all eyes ended on junior midfielder John Ranagan. The bruiser ran through a Virginia defenseman and went five-hole to lift the Jays to an 11-10 victory and vault them to this week's No. 1 ranking.

When you think of the great offensive midfielders over the past decade, you point to players who could break down a longpole, get their hands free and rip shots. Guys like Paul Rabil, Kyle Harrison and Kyle Dixon. Even physical specimens like Max Seibald, Stephen Peyser and David Earl used quick feet more than broad shoulders.

But there's not much split or shake to Ranagan's game. Certainly, you're probably never going to see a commercial of him jumping over some stairs to Dubstep. But you know what he's going to do: put his right shoulder down, rumble north-south and challenge you to stop him. Ask Owen Van Arsdale.

In today's game that's an anomaly. Hyper-athletic defensemen and a generation of coaches who grew up watching Bill Tierney's quick slides (and who now devour hours of game tape) have meant offenses have to be able to move the ball very quickly and consistently take advantage of five-on-four situations to score.

Because offensive players have to have a baseline set of skills, coaches began recruiting offensive players with superior skill sets (think about the influx of Canadian players) as much -- if not more -- than guys who are electric playmakers. Not to mention that since defenders are often recruited specifically for their physical prowess, they often have athletic (and size) advantages over their offensive counterparts.

Ranagan, however, is both an anomaly and a throwback. A Westchester freight train that can also play the Blue Jays' patented half-field sets, the junior has no problem challenging the "space eaters" and the bulky athletic defenseman coming from all corners of the country. Personally, I appreciate that.

Party Like It's 2007

Over the past couple years, championship teams have used similar blueprints: Have a premier attackman who can control the flow of the game and orchestrate high-octane half-field attacks (Stanwick, Ned Crotty, Kenny Nims); and a few guys who can dominate between the 30s (Chris LaPierre, Parker McKee, Matt Abbott) to tilt the possession war and generate transition opportunities.

The Johns Hopkins title teams in 2005 and 2007, however, were built a bit differently. They ran their offense through power midfields. In 2005 their first-line was Kyle Harrison, Matt Rewkowski and Paul Rabil, and in 2007 it was Rabil, Stephen Peyser and Michael Kimmel. They also had some crafty guys at attack and a dominant defensive unit.

This 2012 version seems pretty similar to those earlier title squads. Ranagan, Rob Guida and Lee Coppersmith are doing their best to channel their inner Harrison and Rabil. Tucker Durkin and Pierce Bassett lead a top-notch defense. Zach Palmer and Brandon Benn provide crafty finishing down low.

The question, however, is has the game changed? Can a bunch of athletic, hard-charging alley dodgers with streaky shooting percentages still lead a team all the way to Memorial Day? Do you need an elite attackman who can always create his own shot and find the open man in unsettled situations? Can a team with a grinding defensive half-field approach take home postseason hardware (since 2006, six of the last seven national champions have had a top-three offense)? How fast do the Blue Jays want to play? On Saturday, they were getting up and down in a hurry and picking their spots in transition.

Looking Forward

After pronouncing that Denver was headed to Foxboro (before losses to Notre Dame and Cornell and before netminder Jamie Faus tore his Achilles) and that Virginia was going to steamroll against Hopkins, I've learned that the fewer predictions I make the better.

So here are three things (in no particular order) that I'm excited for this weekend.

  • On Saturday we'll get to see Maryland longstick midfielder Jesse Bernhardt, who for my money is the best pole in the country, go up against UVA's Colin Briggs and Rob Emery. Definitely going to be worth the price of admission there.
  • Do we have a more schizophrenic team than the Duke? Sometimes, I watch Jordan Wolf, Justin Turri, Robert Rotanz, and Co. and think they're drawing up battle lines and gearing up for the postseason like it's 2010 again. Other times, I see an ACC bottomfeeder. This week will be interesting when they take on Syracuse, which looks like it's in full meltdown mode.
  • I never thought I would say this, but Hopkins just looks bigger and more athletic than Carolina between the stripes. It will be interesting to see if they want to challenge the Heels in transition, or if they decide to slow the game down so as to not have to go to blow-for-blow with faceoff technician R.G. Keenan.

comments powered by Disqus

More Headlines