PISCATAWAY, N.J. - The pupil will test the master when top-seeded Johns Hopkins challenges defending champion Princeton today in the NCAA men's lacrosse semifinals.
Rarely has the sense of familiarity that usually marks the final four been this sharp. It has been 15 years since the Blue Jays, for decades the game's leader, won the national championship. It came at Rutgers Stadium, this year's stage. Hopkins then had a long-haired sophomore from Long Island, Dave Pietramala, who polished his rough edges and became a landmark defenseman. His mentor, Bill Tierney, used the second NCAA title the Blue Jays gained in his three seasons as an assistant as a springboard for the Princeton job, and the sport has never been the same.
In 1990, Hopkins tried to lure Tierney back, but he stayed put in the Ivy League and two years later began a run of six NCAA titles in a decade. The Blue Jays have been through three coaches in their quest to get back to the national final. Tony Seaman bristled under alumni scrutiny; John Haus left the expectations after two seasons; Pietramala relishes them, and the chance to topple Tierney.
"Everyone has a mentor," said Pietramala, in his second year as the coach at his alma mater. "Mine was Coach Tierney. "He recruited me. I was a 17-year-old kid who enjoyed his freedom a great deal. I needed someone to help me mature and learn what the world is all about. I came from a divorced home, and he continued the work my dad had done.
"The neat thing is that our relationship has never changed. It's been the same, as a player, assistant coach, head coach, as a friend. He's always been very honest and forthright in sharing his information, his experience. The impact he's had on my career, I can't even begin to measure it."
An open phone line might as well exist between their offices. Pietramala's offensive coordinator is Seth Tierney, Bill's nephew. Princeton's newest assistant is Shawn Nadelen, who last year concluded his playing career at Hopkins.
"Dave has been like an older brother to my sons," Tierney said. "We talk two, three, four times a week. He's the finest young coach in the game; no one outworks him."
The most successful coach has been Tierney, whose affinity for building from the back, recruiting good people and attention to detail has resulted in the Tigers winning their past 12 one-goal decisions in the NCAA tournament. Four of their titles have been earned in overtime. Hopkins rose to the top of the rankings and into Pietramala's first final four in five seasons as a head coach by going 6-0 in one-goal games.
"You win by one once, you're lucky, you do it twice, maybe you're still lucky," Pietramala said. "You do it five or six times, that's finding a way to win. There's a reason why you pay attention to small details."
The Tigers' throne wobbled in March, when they lost, 8-5, to Hopkins, then, 13-11, at Virginia and, 11-8, to Syracuse; the latter teams will meet in today's second semifinal. All got here - the Orangemen for the 20th straight time - with one-goal wins, a quarterfinals first.
Princeton did some soul-searching after a fourth loss, to Yale. It has been three decades since the champion fell that many times (Virginia in 1972), but no one is discounting the Tigers (9-4), who seem experienced everywhere but in the goal.
The attack of senior B.J. Prager, junior Sean Hartofolis and sophomore Ryan Boyle have combined for 329 career points. The Blue Jays (12-1) rely on rookie starters such as senior goalie Nick Murtha and Kyle Harrison, the freshman from Friends who is the best faceoff man here, and rarely have there been so many reservations about a No. 1 seed.
If it gets by Princeton a second time, does Hopkins have the stamina to come back Monday and win twice in 50 hours? How will it fare away from Homewood Field? Will the Blue Jays be as quick on grass as they are on artificial turf?
Actually, the green stuff here has been near and dear to Pietramala since, well, you know when.
"It was an unbelievable experience when we won here," Pietramala said of Hopkins' 1987 title. "When we returned to Homewood, in the locker room I dropped one of my cleats. A bunch of grass had stuck to the bottom. I still have that lump of grass, although my wife has probably been close to throwing it out three or four times.
"I told the guys, I'm not happy just to be here. We're here to accomplish a goal. In '87, we were young, too."
NCAA final four
When:Today and Monday
Where:Rutgers Stadium, Piscataway, N.J.
Today's semifinals: Princeton (9-4) vs. Johns Hopkins (12-1), 11:30 a.m; Virginia (11-3) vs. Syracuse (13-2), 2:30 p.m. approx.
Monday's title game:11:30 a.m.
TV:All games on ESPN2