January 30, 2013

Pietramala, Blue Jays Preparing to Finish Strong

by Gary Lambrecht | LaxMagazine.com

"We've left the last two seasons with a sour taste in our mouths," junior midfielder Rob Guida said of Johns Hopkins' pair of quarterfinal losses to the last two years. "We set our own expectations every year, and they're pretty high."
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

On the surface, over the past two seasons the Johns Hopkins men's lacrosse team has acquitted itself very well. The Blue Jays have won a combined 25 games, lost only five regular-season games and have produced their usual sprinkling of All-Americans.

But you don't have to dig much below the surface to get a truer barometric reading on the way things are at Homewood.

The school's striking, new, 15,000-square-foot, $10 million Cordish Lacrosse Center only highlights the undertone that nips at the Blue Jays, from All-American players such as senior defensemen Tucker Durkin to 13th-year coach Dave Pietramala, the serious face and gruff voice of the most storied program in the sport.

It's the middle of preseason, and Hopkins is all about being better in practice today than yesterday, all about learning to play faster and more fluidly in a sport that is inviting an up-and-down tempo with its rules changes.

But beyond grinding through the day-to-day chores Pietramala and his players commonly refer to as "the process," there is the quietly urgent need for the Blue Jays to find a way to get past "that game."

For the past two springs, the Blue Jays have crafted strong regular seasons with teams carried by a core of non-seniors — only to be upended with devastating losses in the NCAA tournament quarterfinals round.

Two years ago, it was a 14-9 flop against Denver. Last year, it was the sin of an 11-5 drubbing by intrastate rival Maryland. That playoff dud also marked the first time the Terps had beaten Hopkins twice in the same season since 1973.

"I think about that last game, and it's an awful feeling," junior midfielder Rob Guida said. "I think we broke down mentally. We've left the last two seasons with a sour taste in our mouths. We set our own expectations every year, and they're pretty high. We've collapsed the last two years."

"We're going to have to prove ourselves against good teams again and get our swagger back," said Durkin, arguably the best close defenseman in the game. "We're more concerned about the process, how we're going to get better every day and every week. We know the standard is pretty high here. We don't have to talk about it. Getting back to the final four and winning a national championship is the goal every year."

That cuts to the heart of the matter at Hopkins, where lacrosse has been played since 1883, where the Blue Jays have won nine NCAA titles and 44 overall national championships and have not missed an NCAA tournament since 1971, the longest qualifying streak by any school in any Division I sport.

Nearly six years ago, Hopkins won its last NCAA championship. The last time the Blue Jays made it to Memorial Day weekend was a year later, when the Paul Rabil-led Jays fell short in the 2008 championship game. Hopkins has failed to reach the semifinals four consecutive times since, marking the longest drought at Homewood in the 42-year history of the NCAAs.

The 2009 and 2010 years were rebuilding seasons under Pietramala, who struck gold in '10 with a superb freshmen class that included Durkin and fellow defenseman Chris Lightner, midfielders John Ranagan, Lee Coppersmith and John Greeley, attackman Zach Palmer and goalie Pierce Bassett. That group has been the foundation behind those 25 victories dating to the start of the 2011 season.

But something clearly has been missing the last two years in May, when it really counts at Hopkins. The Blue Jays have faded noticeably in the late going, and looked like an emotionally exhausted team running in quicksand during last May's collapse against Maryland.

It was enough to send the intense Pietramala looking to uncover a different way to position the Blue Jays for the all-important stretch run. The coaching staff decided to shorten the fall season by a week, then did the same for the preseason in January.

Practices have been shorter, yet more fast-paced. Hopkins has placed heightened emphasis on conditioning, while seeking to capitalize on rules changes that should make the game more free-flowing and transition-oriented. And in 2013, the 11-man senior class figures to be the best the Blue Jays have had since Rabil fired his last shot. The Blue Jays enter the season ranked fifth by Lacrosse Magazine.

"We've got to play with a greater intellect, and we've got to be fresher and mentally tougher in adverse circumstances," Pietramala said.

"If we didn't change the way we were doing things, we'd be doing a disservice to our team. The fact is, we've had two wonderful regular seasons, but we haven't been able to win that [quarterfinal] game."

And at Johns Hopkins University, more than any other Division I lacrosse school, that simply must change.

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