Young players come to Jays' defense

Unit has stepped up since losing experienced veterans after last season


When the Johns Hopkins men's lacrosse team first took the practice field as defending NCAA champions, the Blue Jays began to confront life without the top player in the game. Midfielder Kyle Harrison, the Tewaaraton Trophy winner and do-everything All-American, had graduated.

But coach Dave Pietramala and his staff were even more conscious of a different void, a glaring series of holes. Defense had been the heart of last year's undefeated team. The defense had rendered high-powered Duke scoreless for nearly the last 28 minutes of the title game. And three of the unit's stalwarts - close defensemen Chris Watson and Tom Garvey and defensive midfielder Benson Erwin - were gone.

As fourth-seeded Hopkins prepares to battle fifth-seeded Syracuse today in Stony Brook, N.Y., for a berth in next weekend's NCAA tournament final four in Philadelphia, the young Blue Jays are not so young anymore. Given the kind of inexperience Hopkins had to tackle on defense this spring, the growth of that group might be the Blue Jays' most impressive feat.

Against a typically demanding schedule, the Blue Jays (9-4) have allowed an average of 8.23 goals per game, up from last year's 6.9-goal average. They have surrendered nine goals combined in their past two victories over Loyola and Pennsylvania, which Hopkins blew out, 13-3, in the first round a week ago.

Not bad for a defense that has relied a lot on freshmen Andrew Miller and Michael Evans in its midfield rotation and starts freshman Matt Drenan and junior Eric Zerrlaut - a first-time starter who barely played in 2005 - on close defense.

Senior defenseman Matt Pinto and junior goalie Jesse Schwartzman are the unit's only returning starters. Senior defensive midfielder Matt Feild, a three-year mainstay, missed four early-season games with a high ankle sprain.

"We knew we would have to go back to teaching more, and that we would be a work in progress," Pietramala said. "We're giving away a hair more than one more goal [per game], with the same schedule and a lot of new faces, and with teams holding the ball against us more than ever. I'll take that."

The faces may change at Homewood, but the defensive system and philosophy endure. Hopkins is not flashy or dynamic. You will hardly see any double-teaming or chasing opposing ball carriers. The aggressive, over-the-head stick check? Not the Blue Jays.

This defense is all about reading, reacting, footwork and maintaining good spacing within a basic man-to-man concept. It incorporates a series of slide and rotation packages designed to negate threats near the crease, up top and on the wings. It's designed to seal off the inside, and create unfavorable shooting angles by disrupting passing and shooting lanes.

The Blue Jays don't mind if you shoot at them all day. Just do it from 12 yards and out, without getting a clean look between the posts.

"Communication and trust trumps athleticism and flashiness. That's not what our defense is about," said assistant coach Bill Dwan, who coaches the defense with Pietramala. "If guys drift outside with their man, you can't get to your next spot. If one guy is off, you're busted.

"The beauty of it is you can defend a team that's more athletic and more skilled than you. The drawback is, if you have one or two guys having off days, it looks horrible."

Hopkins has dealt with it both ways. In losses to Hofstra (11-6 score), Virginia (12-6) and Maryland (11-4), bad positioning and poor clearing out of the defensive end led to scores, even though the Blue Jays played extended stretches of solid man-to-man, as they have done in many of their wins. The clearing issue barely existed against Penn.

"The basic concepts aren't that difficult, but it's the small nuances that make it difficult, like where does the slide start and how soon you slide. Our mistakes are magnified," Pinto said. "It takes a while. I remember the fall of my freshman year, when we did four-on-three and five-on-four transition drills. I felt like my head was spinning, the ball was moving so quickly.

"Your natural tendency is to look where the ball is, but you have to listen to your goalie [to locate offensive matchups] and have some trust. If you stare at the ball too long, your guy is gone."

"We don't want a guy to run by one of us to get a good look and cause somebody to slide," added junior long-stick midfielder Brendan Skakandi, who often is responsible for covering the opponent's most athletic midfielder and has picked off numerous passes up top. "We want to stay tight and packed in."

Schwartzman said watching the development of the defense has been pleasing, from seeing the maturation of Miller and Evans - who filled in ably for Feild - to watching the six defenders in front of him move more in unison, as the season has progressed.

"When we have seven guys working as a unit, we're pretty good. When we don't do it right, guys are open all over the place," Schwartzman said. "We're allowed to get beat and give up shots. Just don't give up shots from certain parts of the field. We need all seven guys talking. We don't play individual defense here."

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