Second opportunity turns into net gain

College lacrosse: After failing to win the starting job last year, goalie Nick Murtha has led top-ranked Johns Hopkins into the NCAA quarterfinals.

May 18, 2002|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

Some colleges offer a pass/fail grading option on certain courses. Nick Murtha faced a similar all-or-nothing proposition in the spring of 2001, but his thumbs down came on opening day instead of the conclusion of the college lacrosse season.

Murtha is the goalie for top-ranked Johns Hopkins, which plays host to Massachusetts in an NCAA tournament quarterfinal game tomorrow at noon at Homewood Field. Any team looking to advance needs strong play at the position, and last year Murtha had to face the fact that coach Dave Pietramala didn't think he was the best man for the job.

A senior from Manhasset, N.Y., Murtha has been steady as Hopkins has rolled through the toughest schedule in the nation with an 11-1 record. He's allowed 7.90 goals per game and boasts a .641 save percentage, all an inspiring turnaround from last season, when Murtha languished on the bench behind Rob Scherr.

The Pietramala era opened on March 3, 2001, at Princeton. Murtha and Scherr had spent the preseason and previous fall battling to replace Brian Carcaterra as the starter, and Pietramala kept everyone guessing until just before the Blue Jays emerged from their locker room at Class of 1952 Stadium. McDonogh School grad Scherr, then a sophomore, got the nod.

"I was kind of crushed," Murtha said. "Coach was really encouraging, told me that `Rob could have a tough go, we're still going to need you, you have to be mentally tough,' but through the entire season I kind of felt disenfranchised from the team. I feel like I let down a lot of my friends, a lot of my teammates, my parents."

Murtha's older brother, James, faced a similar plight in 1999, when he was a junior goalie at Hobart. There were days after practice when Murtha found himself walking alone to his apartment on East University Parkway, bemoaning his fate. Some friends suggested that he transfer to salvage his career, but if Murtha saw the sand running out in his hourglass, Pietramala didn't detect any despair.

"That was probably the most difficult decision I've had to make as a coach," Pietramala said of last year's goalie quandary. "There was probably some sentiment toward Nick, that `he's paid his dues, it's his time.' When the decision didn't go his way, he was never negative or detrimental toward Rob Scherr. This year, the first player to Nick after a game is Rob. Last year, the reverse was true."

Did that attitude help Murtha crack this year's lineup?

"Of course it did," Pietramala said. "The kid was in an adverse situation, and he handled it like an adult. Nick showed a level of maturity that supported the idea that it's not just about him, it's about the team."

Murtha's only appearance in 2001 turned into a horror show, as he made one save and surrendered six goals in a quarter of mop-up duty against Ohio State. Last summer, he stepped up his conditioning and played as much club ball as possible. When Scherr was slowed by a thumb injury last fall, Murtha took hold of the position and has not let go.

In Murtha's first career start, defending NCAA champion Princeton scored just twice in the first 53 minutes. When Hopkins rallied to beat Syracuse two weeks later, he made seven of his 18 saves and allowed one goal in the fourth quarter. In the process, Murtha became the first Blue Jay since Larry Quinn in 1983 to win his first three career starts.

Murtha grew up on Long Island with P.J. DiConza, Hopkins' most experienced defenseman. Mike Peyser began 2001 as a short-stick defensive midfielder, and the other starter in the back is a freshman, Chris Watson. They'll face pressure from an up-tempo Massachusetts team, but a defense that handed Princeton, Syracuse and Loyola their season scoring lows is a major reason Hopkins is the No. 1 seed.

"If you told me last year that I'd be starting for the No. 1 team going into the playoffs," Murtha said, "I would have said you're crazy."

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