Navy's `Iceman' heats up offense

Lacrosse: One reason the Mids have the No. 2 scoring average is Chris Pieczonka, one of the top faceoff men in the country.

April 24, 2004|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,SUN STAFF

Navy junior lacrosse midfielder Chris Pieczonka says his "Iceman" nickname comes from a haircut - a short-on-the sides, spiked-on-top 'do that he got one summer while he was in training at the New Jersey shore.

After getting the haircut, Pieczonka's friends said that he bore a striking resemblance to the fighter pilot, called "Iceman," in the movie Top Gun.

Pieczonka will tell you that it's purely a coincidence that the same characteristics that defined Val Kilmer's character in that popular 1980s movie - the steely determination, the bravado, the fearlessness - make him one of the nation's top faceoff men.

"Regardless of your opponent, you have to go into games expecting to win faceoffs," said Pieczonka, who has cracked the top five on Navy's all-time faceoff wins list with 165. "It doesn't matter about the talent. It's just about who wants the ball more. You just have to have that attitude that that's my ball and no matter what you do, I'm going to give 110 percent and get it."

The rise of Navy (10-1) to the No. 2 team in the country has been fueled by a goalie change, an upgrade in speed and athleticism and a suddenly explosive offense. The Mids' offense is second in the country, behind only Syracuse, in goals per game (13.64) entering today's showdown with top-ranked Johns Hopkins (8-1) at noon in Annapolis.

It is Pieczonka who has consistently gotten the ball for his team's attack, while at the same time keeping pressure off the Mids' defense, which leads the nation in goals-against average (6.64 per game). Pieczonka has won 112 of 167 faceoffs, and his .671 winning percentage is the third best in the country.

"In the last two years, he has really blossomed and it's a multi-dimensional thing," said Mids coach Richie Meade. "He can shoot pretty well, too, and when he's coming down on the break, he has the ability to put the ball in the goal."

Pieczonka (5 feet 9, 184 pounds) was a high-scoring midfielder at Hamburg High School in New York, where he scored about 60 goals and was an All-American in his senior season.

But sensing his quickest way on the field in Annapolis was to become proficient in the faceoff circle, Pieczonka has worked tirelessly since his plebe year with Mids assistant coach Mark Goers, a former Towson State standout who has tutored some of the top faceoff men in the country. Pieczonka credits Goers for his improvement.

At Navy, where he won just over half of his draws last year while rotating with Chris Dingman, Pieczonka has been primarily a FOGO, a term that designates specialists who "faceoff and get off" the field.

"Every year, I try to make it on the offensive end, but with the amount of faceoffs we're taking, I get my share of work," said Pieczonka, who has four goals and an assist this season after entering the year with one career assist. "You just have to swallow your pride and take a hit for the team. I'm just happy to be making a contribution."

In a big game against Georgetown earlier this month, Pieczonka lost all five faceoffs to the Hoyas' Andy Corno, the top faceoff man in the country. Goers turned to plebe Tommy Wallin, who won nine of 10 draws in the Mids' 7-5 win.

Each time, Wallin came off the field, Pieczonka was the first Midshipman to greet him. The Mids treat their faceoff unit, which also includes plebe specialist William Wallace and primary wingmen Thomas Morris and Steve Looney, as a three-man team within the team. The group has been in place since the fall, and has grown closer through video study sessions and separate drills within the Mids' practices.

"It's a neat little family," said Goers. "It's no holds barred when it's just us around. We go at each other pretty good, and there's no rank or privilege."

When the Mids' faceoff men go one-on-one in practice, the loser will often be subject to punishment, such as being forced to crouch and walk like a duck back to the faceoff circle. Pieczonka said it helps build your leg muscles before quickly conceding that the best part of it is the laughter you get at the loser's expense.

Said Goers: "I'll tell you this. We'll never have to tell Chris that he needs to start having fun."

A self-described free spirit who said that he chose the Navy because he didn't want his parents to have to pay for him to get a college education, Pieczonka admitted that he isn't your stereotypical Midshipman - "I've never liked restrictions too much," he said.

The mental and physical challenges are fine. Pieczonka said the historically grueling plebe summer, a six-week initiation to the academy, was a breeze, comparing it to "a summer camp."

Pieczonka will spend part of the summer in Virginia at a Marines basic training school before returning to Annapolis to help train incoming plebes. He is unsure what area of the Navy he will serve in after he graduates.

"Chris reminds me a lot of what a Navy SEAL is," Meade said. "They do their talking with their actions, not their words."

NOTE: The status of Johns Hopkins sophomore midfielder Greg Peyser, the leading faceoff man in the country at 71 percent, is questionable for today's game. Peyser was arrested in front of Wolman Hall and charged with second-degree assault for his role in a brawl early Sunday morning, police said. A Johns Hopkins athletic department official said Blue Jays coach Dave Pietramala is holding the incident as a violation of team policy, but has not announced any course of discipline for Peyser.

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