Hopkins quietly constructs a wall

Jays' unheralded defense gets test vs. Terps tonight

April 12, 2003|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

A March 15 loss at Syracuse means that Johns Hopkins lacrosse can't achieve perfection like the Dolphins did in 1972, but the top-ranked Blue Jays resemble Miami at the height of its NFL power in at least one respect.

They've got a No-Name Defense.

Hopkins will renew hostilities with Maryland for the 99th time today (8 p.m., Channel 2) at Byrd Stadium in College Park. The home team has allowed 7.4 goals a game, the visitors 8.3, but then the No. 4 Terps haven't played perennial NCAA finalists Princeton and Syracuse like the Blue Jays have.

Hopkins lacks star power at the defensive end, but not cohesion.

Its best defender is Michael Peyser, a senior from Lloyd Harbor, N.Y. He was one of the better defensemen in Nassau County four years ago, but that crop was headed by Michael Howley, the Maryland ace who played for the U.S. World team last summer.

Howley was a preseason first-team All-American. So was Chris Passavia, the Terps junior who is one of the more aggressive defenders in the nation. Hopkins' counterpart is sophomore Chris Watson, but Blue Jays coach Dave Pietramala said "people don't recognize what he does for us."

Maryland goalie Dan McCormick, who prepped at D.C.-area power Landon, received preseason, honorable-mention All-American notice. Hopkins' Rob Scherr was an All-Metro, but not that everyone noticed, since he played for a landmark McDonogh team that had Bobby Benson and a boatload of other offensive talent. Scherr started for the Blue Jays in 2001 as a sophomore, but last year lost the job.

"My voice was the loudest one on the sideline," Scherr said. "We were rebuilding back there, and I just wanted to make sure everyone was on the same page."

Was Peyser listening?

"There could be 12,000 people in the stands," Peyser said, "and the only person I hear is Coach Pietramala. When he talks, I listen."

Hopkins last won an NCAA title in 1987, when Pietramala was a Blue Jays sophomore on his way to becoming one of the best ever to wield a long stick. Mindful that great players don't always make great coaches, Pietramala passes down the same precepts he was taught. When Hopkins' defense doesn't apply them, it hears the term "selfish."

"This defense is based on trust and support," Pietramala said. "We tell our midfielders that it's OK to get beat, as long as it's to a specific area. We play a slide-and-recover defense, but a lot of teams do that. It's not so much what you play, but how you teach it."

The close defense on Pietramala's first Hopkins team in 2001 included three seniors who were playing for their third coach in four seasons. It was impossible to fully implement the mindset that Pietramala inherited from Bill Tierney, who was a Hopkins assistant from 1985-87 before he built the Princeton dynasty.

"The best defense is a good faceoff man and a talented offense," said Pietramala, whose team played keepaway in last week's 19-6 rout of Duke. "I love defense, but you won't find a coach who'd rather be on defense than offense. Absolutely, Princeton is the model. Our goal is to put the best people on the field, and ask them to put aside their egos and do what's best for the team."

Pietramala was a long-stick midfielder before he moved back to close defense. Peyser and sophomore Tom Garvey, another starter, followed that same arc. Corey Harned, a junior, could do the same next season. Just as Ryan Mollett was a point-getter for Boys' Latin before transforming into a national Defenseman of the Year at Princeton, Harned came to Homewood Field expecting to score goals, not deny them.

Ditto for Kyle Dowd, a freshman who made the U.S. under-19 team but found that the only way into the Hopkins rotation was as a short-stick defensive middie. Benson Erwin, a sophomore from Friends, and Matt Field, a freshman out of Boys' Latin, also play there for Hopkins.

It's an eclectic mix of talent from Baltimore preps and Long Island public schools. Its interplay is all elementary to Watson, who scored 1,590 on his SAT.

The statistic that the Blue Jays are chewing on is Hopkins' four straight losses at Byrd Stadium. The Blue Jays lost to Virginia there in the 1999 NCAA semifinals, and a year later to Syracuse with the same stakes. In 2001, its first year under Pietramala, Hopkins lost in overtime to the Terps, then to Notre Dame in the NCAA quarterfinals.

The Blue Jays beat the Terps in overtime last year at Homewood Field. Scherr and company are prepared for a third straight one-goal game against Maryland, with an approach befitting their reputation.

"Most of the top offenses all run the same thing," Scherr said. "Practicing against ours, we get an incredible look every day."

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