Hopkins, Syracuse have work cut out

Setbacks add pressure to meeting today

College Lacrosse


When Johns Hopkins and Syracuse renew their fierce men's lacrosse rivalry this time of the year, the game typically is a showcase of elite talent, and of two teams eager to make early season statements as they carve out similar paths, presumably heading deep into the postseason.

But an unusual thing happened during the run-up to today's meeting at Homewood Field between two of the game's top schools. The 14th-ranked Blue Jays (2-2) and No. 11 Orange (1-2) have slipped and slid enough to look downright ordinary by their standards.

For a variety of reasons - injuries, inexperience, the parity that continues to flourish in the Division I game - these two bluebloods are searching and stumbling. For the first time in 22 encounters between Hopkins and Syracuse during the month of March, both teams already are saddled with two losses.

Today's game will not lack the emotional fire surrounding a typical Hopkins-Syracuse confrontation, although for at least one different reason. Each squad is feeling an unusual amount of pressure to reverse its course before making the NCAA tournament becomes a daunting challenge.

"Both programs have to adjust," Syracuse junior defenseman Steve Panarelli said. "Syracuse, Hopkins, Princeton and Virginia aren't just going to go out and beat everybody [during the regular season], then play in the final four anymore. The game has changed so much. These things are going to happen a lot more."

Do not weep quite yet for Hopkins or Syracuse, which is trying to avoid its second straight 1-3 start and has lost five of its past eight games dating to last season.

The Blue Jays have lost only 12 games since coach Dave Pietramala took over following the 2000 season. They went 16-0 and won the NCAA title last year and had been to 10 other final fours since winning their last crown in 1987. Syracuse, which has won eight national championships dating to 1988 and three since 2000, missed the final four last year for the first time since 1982.

But the 2006 editions of the Blue Jays and Orange need to fix themselves before long.

Having lost four starters and a hugely successful senior class, Hopkins is coming off its first-ever loss to Hofstra, and has battled turnovers and poor clearing, which have left the Blue Jays' offense sputtering.

The loss of sophomore midfielder Stephen Peyser, who suffered a broken jaw in a preseason game against Georgetown and might not return to practice until next month, leaves Hopkins with one outstanding dodger in sophomore midfielder Paul Rabil. He has struggled with his scoring (five goals, two assists) early. Senior defensive midfielder Matt Field also has been slowed by a sprained ankle.

Only sophomore attackman Kevin Huntley (11 goals, five assists) has had a large impact.

"We've got guys, like Paul, who are trying to do too much," Pietramala said. "We've got to stop turning the ball over. We've got to practice better and play better. Our quickest challenge is replacing leadership."

Syracuse has major injury problems and has put too much pressure on its defense - especially second-year freshman goalie Peter Coluccini - with sloppy offensive play and inconsistent faceoff work. The Orange has allowed an average of 13.3 goals, and the offense has taken three hits since the season began.

"We thought we were going to be young and old. Now, our youth is getting older," Syracuse coach John Desko said, alluding to increased playing time for freshmen midfielders Patrick Perritt and Dan Hardy. "We've been uncharacterstic. We like [to play in] transition, but we haven't been doing a good job of it defensively."

Hopkins, despite winning 61 percent of its faceoffs so far, remains unsteady on offense. The Blue Jays have scored a combined 10 goals in their two losses, and have rarely gone on extended scoring runs. Getting freshman attackman Tom Duerr back from a shoulder injury will help.

Pietramala wants the team's upperclassmen, such as senior defenseman Matt Pinto and senior midfielder Greg Peyser, to assume more leadership responsibility. He also has turned up the tempo at practice instead of being overly conscious of the team's injuries.

"It's been an interesting week. What are we going to do, hit the panic button?" Pietramala said. "We knew we were going to hit bumps this year. We'd have been fools to think we weren't. The kids can't worry about winning and losing; that's the coaches' jobs."

"I think we've been walking on eggshells a little bit," Pinto said. "We need to just play and not worry about every little thing. At some point, you need to play with a sense of urgency, and we haven't done that enough."


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