Pietramala adjusts focus as he eyes prize

May 08, 2004|By MIKE PRESTON

JOHNS HOPKINS lacrosse coach Dave Pietramala is driven to win a national championship, but it's not an obsession, even at a university that is synonymous with the sport.

Pietramala is still the same old, animated, intimidating figure who stalks the sidelines with the gravelly, baritone voice, though recent events have changed his approach and the pressure he puts on himself and his team.

He is fully aware that the Blue Jays haven't won a national title since 1987, but he also knows that Michael Breschi, the 3-year-old son of Ohio State coach Joe Breschi, died after he was struck by a sports utility vehicle two months ago.

On March 17, George Boiardi, a senior midfielder for Cornell who had played at the Landon School in Bethesda, died after being hit in the chest with a shot during the Big Red's game against Binghamton in Ithaca, N.Y.

Pietramala recruited Boiardi for Cornell, where he was the head coach from 1998 through 2000. In a sport that prides itself in taking care of its own, the after-effects are still being felt.

"I have twin 8-month-old boys," said Pietramala, in his fourth season at Hopkins. `To roll over and see one of them in bed with you makes your day. Their birth, coupled with what is going on in the lacrosse world, forced me to step back a little bit and make evaluations.

"It makes you look at your players differently, and you become aware of certain things," Pietramala said. "Hopefully, you become more understanding. Those things tend to happen with experience and age, but with those things happening in the lacrosse community, you try to build better relationships with your players than ever before.

"Things have to be put in perspective. It's not always about winning and losing."

You would expect Pietramala to be a little edgy these days. The Blue Jays have gone deeper into the playoffs each of his three seasons, including a 9-7 loss to Virginia last year in the NCAA title game.

The Blue Jays (10-1) are ranked No. 1, with only today's game at Loyola left on the regular-season schedule.

Even if Hopkins loses, the Blue Jays are expected to get a high seed for the playoffs. Actually, Hopkins is right back where it was at the beginning of the season, when it was on top and the team to beat.

"We try not to make our focus on winning championships, but doing the little things to win games, and they will eventually take you to the big games," Pietramala said. "Winning the Big Game, well, that's my job. That's why I took it and love it.

"When I first became the coach here, I wanted to make this program one that everyone was proud of academically, socially and athletically," he said. "I wanted to change how we dressed, the way we communicated with people and how we went about our daily business. Are we perfect? No, nobody is. But I think we've made progress."

It's evident both on and off the field. As a team over the past three semesters, the Blue Jays have a 3.0 grade point average. Talk to most of these present Blue Jays players, and they talk just as much about academics and social skills as lacrosse.

"This is one of the most storied lacrosse places in the country," goalie Scott Smith said. "We came here because this is a great opportunity academically, which is our No. 1 priority. But if you can't get it done in the classroom, you won't be able to get it done on the field. That attitude is a reflection of the coach."

It's also a reflection of the leadership on the team. The Blue Jays graduated outstanding players such as attackman Bobby Benson, goalie Rob Scherr and midfielder Adam Doneger a year ago. But this team doesn't talk much about the 2003 version, or about the loss in the championship game.

This team has its own personality. The Blue Jays are inconsistent, but unflappable. They are loose and confident, but not cocky. They can run or they can slow it down on offense, which is a tribute to their athleticism, and they have a defense that is built around slides and a team concept.

Today's leaders are defenseman Chris Watson, attackman Peter LeSueur and midfielders Corey Harned and Kyle Harrison. Harrison (17 goals, five assists) is one of several go-to players, along with attackmen Kyle Barrie (21-10) and Matt Rewkowski (17, nine), and midfielders Kevin Boland (nine, 22) and Conor Ford (31, seven).

And then there is Smith, only a sophomore. He has been considered the weak link, but has allowed an average of only 7.39 goals with a .557 save percentage. The Blue Jays also have a clear percentage of .855 when he is in the game.

"The young man is a first-year starter, and he's only going to get better," Pietramala said. "He personifies our inconsistency as a team. He can play a great game, a great half, and then have a five-minute spurt where he doesn't perform to the level he is capable of. But I'm proud of what Scott has done. If people want to say that's our weakness, great, then so be it. I have to look at the overall picture, not just one game or a couple of spurts."

Pietramala will use the same approach for the playoffs. He is calm and confident, not sweating, even though it's pressure time and he's the head coach at Hopkins, which has produced 171 first-team All-Americans.

"Who knows who you're going to play in the first round?" he said. "We've told our guys there is only one game to worry about, and that's Loyola. Once you get in the tournament, you're eventually going to have to play someone who is pretty good.

"Are we where we want to be? No. Only one team ends up where they want to be, and some of us get pretty close.

"For us, we'll just try to continue to improve, and the rest -- winning and losing -- will take care of itself."

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