It's crunch time in lacrosse, the part of the season where teams either solidify a spot in the men's NCAA Division I tournament or go home. No. 10 Johns Hopkins is in that position, and with Duke already having canceled its season, the field could be without the two finalists from 2005.
A year after winning the national championship, Hopkins, the university that prides itself on lacrosse, might not make the tournament. It sounds crazy, but the Blue Jays are 5-4 with games at No. 3 Navy on Saturday, followed by a home game against No. 12 Towson. Hopkins closes out the season at No. 14 Loyola.
In previous years, this was no big deal. But if you watched Maryland take apart Hopkins, 11-4, Saturday night at Homewood Field, you can understand why the Blue Jays and their fans might be feeling a little pressure.
Not only did the Terps humiliate Hopkins, but they also embarrassed the Blue Jays on their home turf before a crowd of nearly 10,000. Maryland coach Dave Cottle did to Hopkins what Blue Jays coach Dave Pietramala has done to so many others over the years. Cottle took the opponent apart slowly and methodically, especially after gaining an early lead.
Pietramala is exceptional at breaking down opponents, especially reading tendencies. But Maryland changed some of its offensive looks on both the regular and extra-man offense, bothering the Blue Jays. Once the Terps got the lead, they held the ball as long as possible, forcing the Blue Jays to come out and play the ball. Once that happened, they simply ran around or through a Hopkins defense that isn't overly athletic.
Cottle didn't bring any new fans to the game with his version of stall ball, but he played within the rules. The loss put the Blue Jays in a tough position.
There are all kinds of questions about Hopkins now. How could they be so lethargic against a big rival at home? Where was the leadership in the second half when the Blue Jays panicked with poor shots and turnovers? It's apparent Hopkins has regressed, but have the Blue Jays gone so far back that they can't salvage this season?
Oh, it gets interesting from here.
Hopkins has to play in Annapolis on Saturday against a Navy team trying to break a 31-game losing streak to the Blue Jays. Towson coach Tony Seaman would like nothing better than to knock off the school that fired him seven years ago, and to put the Blue Jays out of contention. Loyola and Hopkins campuses are separated bya little more than a mile, so it's a natural grudge match.
On paper, it's an uphill battle, but not impossible. It's been a crazy and unpredictable season, and teams that have hit rock bottom have rebounded and climbed back into the national picture. Look at No. 9 Syracuse. The Orange started off 1-4, and was proclaimed dead by some.
But never count out the Orange.
Snowstorms often force the team inside during the early part of the season, but once the weather warms up, so does Syracuse, which has gotten outstanding play from freshmen like midfielders Kenny Nims and Patrick Perritt and sophomore attackman Mike Leveille.
No. 20 Colgate, No. 19 Stony Brook and No. 16 Denver have maintained a consistent level of play. Who would have thought Hofstra would have been No. 2 in mid-April at the beginning of the season?
Now look at the local teams.
Loyola struggled early in the season with losses to Towson, Duke, Massachusetts and Syracuse. The Greyhounds had every reason to fold up with first-year coach Charley Toomey, but they upset No. 2 Georgetown, 14-10, Saturday. With an offense that gets better each game, the Greyhounds are in a three-way tie for the Eastern College Athletic Conference lead with Georgetown and Penn State, all at 3-1, in the conference.
So much for this being a rebuilding year, huh?
"We're 1-4 on the road," said Toomey, whose team has two straight road games against Fairfield and Hobart before playing Hopkins. "We've defended our turf, and I've got to give my kids credit for that, but we have got to learn to win on the road. The key for us is our offense. Our shooting has gotten better, and our offense has improved in time. We'll see where we end up."
Both Towson and UMBC struggled earlier in the season, but seemed to have found their grooves. When the Tigers (7-4) beat Villanova, 11-6, over the weekend, it was their third win in a row and sealed home-field advantage as the second seed in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament. The No. 15 Retrievers (6-4) have earned a berth in the American East tournament.
No. 4 Maryland assured itself a berth in the NCAA tournament with its win over Hopkins on Saturday night. So now, most of the local teams are looking good with the exception of Hopkins. The Blue Jays have to be sweating. That obnoxious, but small band that irritates most opponents could be playing the blues soon.
But in a season in which only No. 1 Virginia has clearly separated itself from the rest of the field, almost anything can happen. You can never count out a program like Hopkins, which has a storied tradition and had some of the game's greatest players.