March 25, 2013

UnCensered: Face-Off Classic Blowouts Reveal Strengths, Weaknesses

by Joel Censer |

The Johns Hopkins defense forced Virginia midfield threats Rob Emery and Ryan Tucker to shoot with their off hands all day. The pair shot 1-for-16 in the Cavaliers' 15-8 loss.

I drove the 45 minutes from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore on Saturday to watch the Konica Minolta Face-Off Classic at M&T Bank Stadium. On paper, the Johns Hopkins-Virginia, Colgate-Navy doubleheader held the promise of a perfect afternoon: a crisp spring day in one of the cradles of lacrosse; half the lacrosse intelligentsia in the press box; a Patriot League blood spat between Navy and Colgate; two of college lacrosse's flagship programs in Virginia and Johns Hopkins meeting in a game that both teams desperately needed to win; last year's Tewaaraton winner Peter Baum getting his day in the ESPNU sun; a couple of very aggressive and very skilled Midshipmen defensemen hoping to stop him; Hopkins' experienced, but schizophrenic backline looking to justify the preseason hype; and Mark Cockerton, Matt White and a stable of athletic, alley-dodging Wahoos trying to give Virginia its first signature win of 2013.

Yet for all the juicy storylines at M&T, lacrosse fans were treated to two blowouts. Colgate dispatched Navy 11-3 with startling efficiency while the Jays ran all over the Cavaliers in a 15-8 smackdown. Here, I try to process the five-plus hours of lacrosse I took in.

Johns Hopkins and the art of playing loose

Listening to Johns Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala wax at the postgame press conference, the thing that stuck out was his emphasis on how important it was during the week's practice to make the guys feel comfortable.

When you think of Pietramala's coaching style, you don't immediately think of the laissez-faire, Mr. Positive type. He talks about reading Sun-Tzu's "Art of War." His teams generally win when they protect the pill and out-execute their opponents. From watching documentaries and videos or seeing him prowl the sideline, it's clear that he demands a certain level of excellence from his players. There's nothing wrong with that. Obviously, he's one of the game's best coaches and his style has worked for the Jays in the past.

But after two soul-crushing playoff losses in 2011 and 2012, where Johns Hopkins lost confidence later in the season, Pietramala seems to be approaching things a bit differently this season. He's not just encouraging the Jays to play fast and push tempo; he's encouraging them to play loose.

Sometimes, we forget, but suiting up for Hopkins isn't easy. You're on TV every week. If you're missing the cage or getting beat topside, it's written about on message boards or in columns like this. Every time you get a new pair of gloves or decals, some story is posted about it. For 18- to 22-year-olds, it's a lot.

Whatever Pietramala did to re-instill the team's confidence, it was clear from the opening whistle that this Hopkins outfit was different than the one that got trampled on the Carrier Dome's turf seven days earlier. Even though Johns Hopkins ended up losing the faceoff battle, Mike Poppleton (who left in the first half after he was "nicked up") and Drew Kennedy both scored goals and were winning draws forward, which immediately kick started transition. Lee Coppersmith, long pole trail-checker Mike Pellegrino and defensive midfielder extraordinaire Phil Castronova ran roughshod between the stripes. Wells Stanwnick was playing the point on the fast break to perfection.

The offense looked far more complete than the alley-dodge or bust group that lost to Princeton and Syracuse. They set tons of picks, consistently moved to space, ran a steady diet of inverts and two-man games, dodged from everywhere, spread the ball around, had quick touches and took quality shots. As Pietramala noted, they also shuffled the midfield deck. Putting Minnesota missile Rex Sanders on the second line, to add another dodging option alongside Coppersmith and freshman phenom Ryan Brown paid immediate dividends as the group exploded for a combined seven goals.

The biggest difference may have been at the defensive end. Whereas the Jays slid upfield for no apparent reason and looked entirely lost off-ball against the Orange, Durkin, Lightner, Reilly and friends all won their individual matchups. They also slid and recovered, cleared the ball effectively and forced Ryan Tucker and Rob Emery to shoot with their off hand. Pierce Bassett (16 saves), who has had his own struggles, took care of the rest from there: standing down both the Wahoo shooting gallery and the naysayers.

Of course I'll qualify all this praise by saying I don't think anyone knows what Hopkins team will show up against at North Carolina on Saturday. Last season, after Ranagan went five hole to beat the 'Hoos at Klockner, the mercurial Jays went 4-4 the rest of the way. But this game clearly represents an important step.


Meanwhile, it was a devastating loss for the 'Hoos, who are now 5-4 without having encountered the ACC gauntlet yet.

Perusing the stats, Virginia fared well in every statistical category. They outshot Hopkins. They won more faceoffs. Rhody Heller was solid enough in net. They out ground balled the Jays and didn't commit many turnovers.

The difference? The Cavs couldn't penetrate or run by any of the Hopkins defenders. While the Jays feasted on 4-on-3 fast breaks and a number of unsettled opportunities, Virginia's offensive possessions felt like a struggle. This Wahoo team promised all offseason to play at hyper-speed and that they were never going to deal with "timer on" calls. But there we were in the first quarter as the refs slapped it on 'em at least three times. Weren't the Jays supposed to be the cement-footed possession hoarders? When Virginia did put rubber on cage, often Emery or Tucker shot with their weak hand into Bassett's stick. The duo combined to shoot 1-for-16.

Give credit to Mark Cockerton. The Canadian gave up at least four inches and 40 pounds to Durkin, and yet was fighting him for every inch of real estate.

Walsh not an ordinary sidekick for Baum

If defenses focus too much on Peter Baum, 6-foot-4, 240-pound attackman Ryan Walsh is more than happy to take advantage.
© Lee Weissman

Colgate head coach Mike Murphy is becoming the most quotable coach in college lacrosse, with apologies to Bill Tierney and Dom Starsia. At the press conference, he revealed that the 19-3 Cornell thrashing a month ago in Ithaca was the kind of loss that still bothers him and probably will for the rest of his coaching career. It was brutally honest and refreshing. It certainly wasn't the "we're taking one game at a time and looking to the future" stock answer.

Navy tried to play rope-a-dope with Colgate, winning the battle between the stripes, and then slugging out it out in settled situations. Give Colgate a lot of credit: despite its reputation as a get-up-and-down team that wants to shove the ball down a goalie's throat at every opportunity, the Raiders looked very comfortable in the half-field. They handled Navy's gimmick defenses. The Midshipmen initially forced Colgate's midfielders not down the alleys but towards the center of the field. The Raiders took advantage. They ran hard, drew a slide and then banged it adjacent for an easy step-down look.

Baum, meanwhile was facing Austin Miller's pressure, double-teams and early slides the moment the Colgate bus drove by Aberdeen, Md. But he continually made the right play, as he set picks (hard for a defense to navigate when the defender is supposed to be shutting the picker off), skipped the ball through, picked up a couple hockey assists, and capitalized when he had an opportunity. Baum had three goals on five shots.

But what was most noticeable was that 6-foot-4, 240-pound slab of attackman trampling past Midshipmen. Colgate lefty attackman and Wantagh bruiser Ryan Walsh had four goals and three assists and eviscerated Navy's defense in every possible way. He was opportunistic off the dodge, getting to the front of goal when matched up against a helpless short-stick or when the ball was redirected and there was no slide. Walsh also had the slick stick to finish in transition. He found open guys with the pass too.

If a team is going to put all that defensive attention on Baum, it better be ready for his thick shouldered sidekick in Walsh. In my humble opinion, Walsh is the best of an Ian Dingman, Will Yeatman burley-type attackman. The Raider sophomore has more range in his shot, more nuances to his game and doesn't have to be three yards from the net to be effective.

Woes in Nap Town

I grew up watching those great 2000 era Navy teams with Mitch Hendler, Graham Gill, Ben Bailey, the Looney brothers, etc., so seeing the Midshipmen lose like that wasn't much fun.

Regardless, this team definitely had some typical Navy characteristics. The hellacious ride limited Colgate to connecting on just 19 of their 29 clear attempts. Elite defensive talent like Miller and Pat Kieran scrapped for loose balls, pushed transition and gave Colgate attackers the business.

But there was also a ho-hum, uncomfortably anemic offense that seemed to lack initiators or initiative. Even when the Mids were on extra man or in the unsettled, Navy attackers seemed hesitant to pull the trigger. They didn't even get a shot off during multiple extra man possessions. I'm not sure if that was the result of the Midshipmen wanting to control the pace of play at every moment or not. But if you don't have an explosive offense and you do have a bunch of athletes in the middle of the field, shouldn't you be pushing transition as much as possible? Some easy unsettled goals would quickly atone for any offensive deficiencies.

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