When Dave Pietramala talks about his top-ranked Johns Hopkins lacrosse team, the first word out of his mouth is "resilient."
That is also an appropriate description of the Blue Jays' opponent in the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament. When Massachusetts visits Homewood Field on Sunday at noon, it will be a landmark game for a program that has had to deal with a mess of misery.
The leading point-getters for the Minutemen are senior attackmen Marc Morley and Dan Paccione. Classmate Don Little runs on the first midfield.
When they were freshmen in 1999, a Massachusetts sophomore named Eric Sopracasa collapsed during a practice and could not be revived. His death left a pall over the program in 2000, when the Minutemen suffered through their only losing season since 1985. Last year, they thought a 12-2 record would get them in the NCAA tournament, but it did not.
"My class has been through so much," Little said. "Everything we've worked for, we've earned."
Massachusetts has never been to a final four. The Blue Jays have been to the NCAA semifinals 20 times. Hopkins beat Hofstra and Syracuse. The latter whipped the Minutemen, 18-10, at the Carrier Dome. But Pietramala has already let his team know that Massachusetts has traveled very well when it goes below the Mason-Dixon Line.
In March, the Minutemen won at Navy, 13-10. On April 20, they scored a 16-13 win at Georgetown that clinched the ECAC title and an automatic NCAA berth.
"When we beat Georgetown, we learned that you have to play big in big games," coach Greg Cannella said. "We had big performances from a lot of guys, not just a couple. We were ready to play at Syracuse, but it was only their fourth game at the Carrier Dome, and they did a good job of making us play poorly. They beat us at our own game."
That would be transition. The eighth-seeded Minutemen like to run, and they want to force a fast tempo on the Blue Jays. Massachusetts is inexperienced in the goal, where freshman Bill Schell didn't get his first start until the sixth game, and at faceoff, where classmate Craig Conn and Paccione split duties.
"Last summer, [Paccione] faced off for his club team, and told us he could handle it last fall. He starts on attack. He's done everything for us, and done it well."
Johns Hopkins is 3-0 against Massachusetts, with all three victories coming in the NCAA quarterfinals at Homewood Field. They last met in 1989, when Pietramala was the nation's outstanding player. When they played in 1986, he was a freshman playing long-stick midfielder and Cannella was a junior attackman for the Minutemen. Cannella had a goal and an assist in his last trip to Homewood Field.
"I remember Del Dressel scoring a bunch of goals and Steve Mitchell looking like an albatross," Cannella said of the 1986 Blue Jays.
Cannella began his college coaching career at Maryland. When Pietramala made a recruiting visit to College Park in the fall of 1984, Cannella served as his host.
The Hopkins-Massachusetts game opens a doubleheader at Homewood Field, with third-seeded Virginia and sixth-seeded Cornell in the second game. General admission is $12 for adults, $10 for children 12 and under, and the only advance sale is at the White Athletic Center, during normal business hours, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sales are cash only.