May 8, 2013

Blue Jays' Durkin: 'We Never Really Got it Done'

by Gary Lambrecht |

Johns Hopkins senior defenseman and co-captain Tucker Durkin toward the end of the Blue Jays' April 27 loss to Loyola, a defeat that essentially ended their NCAA tournament hopes.

The news on Sunday evening was in no way a stunner. But the finality of it, the realization that Johns Hopkins would not take its customary ride into the NCAA tournament, felt like an upper cut to the ribs to Blue Jays senior defenseman and co-captain Tucker Durkin.

"It wasn't a shock. But at the same time, I don't think anyone wanted to believe our season was over," said Durkin, reflecting on the night Hopkins was shut out of the tournament for the first time in over four decades. "It was a unique feeling. In the past, there's always been a tomorrow [for Hopkins] after Selection Sunday."

It was a predictable yet groundbreaking night in numerous ways for Division I lacrosse. The latest tournament field essentially served as a snapshot that captured the present and future of the sport.

For starters, no team in the field has fewer than three losses. Seven schools are in with four defeats. Seventh-seeded Duke, angling for its seventh straight final four, plays host to Loyola on Sunday with a 12-5 record.

No. 3 seed Ohio State, the hottest team this side of top-seeded Syracuse, was awarded its first-ever home playoff game. Eighth-seeded Penn State reached its third postseason and first since 2005 — as an at-large participant. Unseeded Cornell will face No. 6 seed Maryland in a first-round battle that, one month ago, seemed like a title game possibility. Defending champion Loyola, a hair away from a perfect season in 2012, was the last team in.

Yet, there is no denying Sunday night was also about who was left without a tournament invitation. And that's where Johns Hopkins (9-5) stepped to the front of the line, even past Virginia, which suffered its first losing season (7-8) since 2004, the last time the Cavs failed to qualify.

Finally, Hopkins could not avoid the fall it has postponed like no other elite lacrosse school has — see Virginia, Syracuse and Princeton — over the past decade, as parity became enmeshed in the sport's fabric.

For the first time since 1971, when Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala was three years old and Durkin's birth was still two decades away, the Blue Jays were sent home early, since no seats remained for them at the 16-place, postseason table. That ended a 41-year run of consecutive tournament appearances for Hopkins, which held the longest streak of its kind in all of collegiate sports.

For the Blue Jays, who have not won a championship since 2007 or made it to a tournament semifinal since 2008, it was a low point that had been coming hard since April 27, the day Hopkins failed its last must-win test against Loyola on Senior Day at Homewood Field. But this day had been inching closer for a number of years.

Think of 2009, when Hopkins had to get hot late to get off of the tournament at-large bubble. The team ended with five losses, the last a 10-goal rout by Virginia in the tournament quarterfinals. Think of the 7-8 drop in 2010, when a bunch of improving freshmen kept Hopkins afloat long enough to get drilled by eventual NCAA champion Duke in the first round.

That was the year a group of promising first-year players, led by midfielders John Ranagan and John Greeley, goalie Pierce Bassett and Durkin, formed a core that seemed equipped to right the Hopkins ship — as in get the Blue Jays back in contention for the school's 10th title.

But the last three years ultimately delivered lots of good, sometimes outstanding lacrosse by some very talented players, who just did not shine enough under the bright lights against increasingly better competition.

"People are going to search for answers to it, but the fact of the matter is we never really got it done."

— Johns Hopkins senior co-captain Tucker Durkin

"When you play at a big-time program like this, there are expectations to get to final fours and win a national championship," said Durkin, who should be a lock for the second time as a first-team All-American. "After our freshman year, the expectations were high. People are going to search for answers to it, but the fact of the matter is we never really got it done."

In 2011 and 2012, the Blue Jays did plenty by winning a combined 25 games. But this is the world of Hopkins, and those years were remembered most for lopsided losses in the tournament quarterfinals to Denver and Maryland, respectively.

The 2013 season was different in the most painful way. Hopkins suffered no bad losses, dropping four of its five games to NCAA tournament teams, with the other coming against a 9-6 Princeton squad that just missed the big tournament.

But the Blue Jays, whether they were committing too many turnovers one week or shooting poorly the next or breaking down just enough defensively the next, lacked the poise to win when it mattered most. This team played hard and clean and together yet was missing that consistent something in the clutch — a key stop, a killer dodger, a clutch shooter, a confident possession.

It was fitting that Hopkins went down in a year it whipped Maryland and Virginia. That's good enough to reach the NCAAs most years, but not in a season in which injury-riddled Virginia offered little RPI or quality win value to its opponents.

And it was in the two weeks following its Virginia victory that Hopkins started fading in excruciating fashion.

First, there was the 11-10 loss in overtime to North Carolina, the tournament's eventual No. 5 seed. The Blue Jays trailed all day, grabbed a 10-9 lead in the closing minutes, only to commit a costly turnover in the final 90 seconds and lose.

A week later, Durkin held Albany's Lyle Thompson — the top scorer on the highest-scoring team in Division I — without a point. The Great Danes managed just six goals through three quarters. Yet, Albany used a garbage goal and three transition scores and 8-for-44 shooting by Hopkins to hang a 10-9 upset on the Blue Jays.

That left Hopkins with no wiggle room, and after wins over Maryland and Navy, the Blue Jays went down without an offensive whimper in an 8-4 loss to Loyola. As if Durkin needed another downer, he suffered a concussion in practice three days later, and was forced to sit out the team's 9-4 victory over Army that ended the season.

Somebody had to be holding the keys at Hopkins when the streak got interrupted. In this case, it was the 2013 edition, led by a senior class that went 41-20 overall, 2-3 in the postseason and was anchored by the team's best player in Durkin.

"The whole [tournament] streak was awesome. To be part of it ending is not how anyone wants to be remembered. But it has been a remarkable four years," Durkin said. "We really thought we had the pieces to have a great season and make a big run. But we never built a huge run of wins and we didn't get it done in enough big games. The most frustrating part is we really played hard and invested a lot in this thing."

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