A rock in a hard place

With DiConza as rock, Hopkins making move

Lacrosse: Nobody has been more critical to the success of No. 1 Johns Hopkins than a man playing in pain - defenseman P.J. DiConza.

College Lacrosse

March 23, 2002|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,SUN STAFF

Nine Johns Hopkins freshmen played in their first college lacrosse game earlier this month, when the Blue Jays opened their season against Princeton, the reigning national champion.

However, it was a senior defenseman coming off a devastating injury who entered the game needing the most reassurance. P.J. DiConza was back on the lacrosse field, less than a year after breaking his right kneecap.

"Going into the Princeton game, I did feel like a freshman going into my first game," said DiConza after the top-ranked Blue Jays (3-0) had finished practice Thursday in preparation for today's game at No. 3 Virginia.

"We practiced hard and I played in a couple of scrimmages, so I knew I could move, but on game day everything moves so much quicker.

On that day, DiConza limited Ryan Boyle, the Gilman alumnus who was a third-team All-American last year, to a late and all but meaningless goal in the Blue Jays' 8-5 win.

He was even more outstanding last Saturday, locking up Syracuse All-American Michael Powell, regarded as the top attackman in college lacrosse. For only the second time in his career, the Orangemen's prized sophomore was held to just one point, an assist, as the Blue Jays prevailed, 9-8.

And while neither DiConza nor Johns Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala would tip his hand on any of today's matchups, it's likely DiConza will spend at least a portion of his afternoon in Charlottesville shadowing the Cavaliers' two-time All American, Conor Gill, a senior out of St. Paul's.

"Am I surprised at the way P.J. is playing now? No," said Pietramala. "What I am surprised about is that he's playing."

DiConza broke his right kneecap during a mid-April practice session, the same injury that cost him his senior season at Manhasset High School on New York's Long Island.

The knee was still giving the 22-year-old problems this past summer, when the doctors suggested another operation that would probably have cost him his senior season.

DiConza, who sat out fall ball and is held out of practice by the Blue Jays' coaching staff from time to time, has been true to his vow to play through pain.

Wearing only a small pad over his knee as a precautionary measure, he's become the anchor of an unheralded Blue Jays defense that features a new starter at every position.

Goalie Nick Murtha did not start a game until this, his senior, year, beating out incumbent starter Rob Scherr in the fall. Chris Watson is a freshman and Mike Peyser used to be a short-stick midfielder.

In his first three years at Homewood, DiConza was a long-stick midfielder, but he was moved to close defense this year because Pietramala wanted his senior captain to be on the field more.

"We were the defense no one knew about," said DiConza. "I guess we felt we had something to prove."

DiConza has had that feeling before. Just 5 feet 9 and 170 pounds, he has been told on numerous occasions that he is not a prototypical, bruising defender.

He credited a combination of factors in helping him make the transition to defense, but singled out videotapes and scouting reports.

Murtha, who grew up in the same Long Island neighborhood as DiConza and has played lacrosse with him since fourth grade, joked that his roommate "sleeps with the scouting report under his pillow, he knows it so well."

The studying comes naturally to DiConza, a sociology major with a team-best 3.68 grade-point average who is headed to Fordham Law School.

But it is still the lacrosse field on which he makes his biggest statement.

In the seven games DiConza played in last year before his injury, Hopkins allowed just over seven goals a game and had not allowed an opponent to reach the 10-goal plateau. With DiConza on the sidelines, the Blue Jays did not hold an opponent to fewer than 10 goals a game.

"It gives you an idea of how important he is to the team," said Pietramala.

That idea has been reinforced throughout this season as Hopkins has followed DiConza's lead into the national-championship picture.

"I didn't rehab through two knee surgeries just to make it to the Final Four or lose in the first round of the playoffs," said DiConza. "I sucked up the pain I've been through for one reason, and that's to win. I don't want anything else."

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