Hopkins remains elite amid increased parity

Blue Jays expect 36th consecutive tournament berth

College lacrosse

May 05, 2007|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,Sun reporter

For several weeks, the players and coaches grew weary of the losses and chafed at the scrutiny that comes with playing for Johns Hopkins.

Four wins later, the Blue Jays have snuffed out that rare losing streak, silenced some skeptics, and are back to business as usual. They are on the verge of extending a most unusual streak that symbolizes what men's lacrosse means at Homewood.

No. 5 Hopkins closes its regular season today at 1 p.m. against visiting No. 12 Loyola. The Blue Jays know the Greyhounds, despite their 3-41 record against Hopkins, have the stuff to ruin their day.

But the Blue Jays (8-4) also know they already are, in a sense, the last team standing.

Tomorrow, Hopkins officially will learn it is going to its 36th consecutive NCAA tournament. It's an achievement that might never be matched in the game, and it stands as the longest active NCAA tournament qualifying run in any Division I sport.

"You come to Hopkins, you expect to win. You make your decision to come here because you want to win," junior midfielder Stephen Peyser said. "That added pressure is something that drives the program. That's a cool thing."

"[The pressure] gets monotonous at times, but we all know why we're here," added senior long-stick midfielder Brendan Skakandi. "We know how important that streak is."

That Hopkins has once again survived a typically rough schedule and paved the way to another postseason bears noting during a season in which parity has reasserted itself and yet another blueblood has fallen.

Syracuse became the latest among the game's aristocracy to lose its invincibility. Two years after missing its first Division I final four since 1982, the Orange has just been eliminated from the chase for the postseason for the first time after a 25-year run.

Two years ago, Princeton suffered the same fate after a 15-year string of appearances that produced six national titles under coach Bill Tierney. In 2004, the year after winning its third NCAA crown, Virginia limped home at 5-8, knocked out of the postseason after going to the tournament 14 straight times.

Those three schools have won every national championship dating to 1992, with the exception of the 2005 Blue Jays, who went undefeated to win their first crown after a 17-season drought.

But even while they and their fans and alumni yearned for the big one, the Blue Jays never stopped winning.

They reached 10 final fours after 1987 before finally winning the title. They've continued to avoid their first losing season since 1971. They've stayed in the playoff picture every year, since missing the inaugural Division I tournament 36 years ago.

"[Making the tournament] is expected here. I think that's why it's not talked about," Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala said. "It's supposed to happen. That's what I love about this place.

"We never get [an opponent's] worst game. We're never an underdog. When the pressure is on, we've handled it remarkably. I don't want to be the coach that's responsible for ending that streak."

The Blue Jays have flirted with the unthinkable in back-to-back seasons - partly due to youth and inexperience, partly due to the closing gap between the game's haves and have-mores. Witness this year's stunning season-opening 8-7 loss at home to Albany.

Last year, after that departed senior class had completed an incredible 55-6 run, which included four consecutive final four trips and a 32-0 record at home, Hopkins began to struggle.

It lost a home game for the first time in 37 games since 2001. Then, it got crushed at home by Maryland and had to rally from a 5-4 start to make the tournament, only to miss the final four for the first time since 2002.

This year, the Blue Jays endured a three-game losing streak, the program's first since 1990, which dropped them to 4-4. They have lost three times at home for the first time in 11 seasons. But one-goal wins - a staple of the Pietramala era - over Maryland and Navy revived them.

Today, the Blue Jays will try to win their fifth straight game and hit the NCAAs with momentum as a possible fourth seed.

All of which is simply expected at Homewood.

"When you lose a game at Hopkins, it's a big deal. It doesn't just fall by the wayside. It eats at you," said Peyser, who thinks the most recent losing streak has added a layer of skin to the Blue Jays.

"We're the group that has ruined a lot of streaks for Hopkins. We're kind of sick of that. We just grabbed the whole thing by the neck. It's good that we've gotten this underneath our skin, because it makes us an angry team. When we play angry, we're pretty good."

gary.lambrecht@baltsun.com

For a lacrosse blog, go to baltimoresun.com/faceoff.

LONGEST STREAKS

Longest active streak of Division I NCAA tournament appearances among men's team sports:

School Sport Streak Year it began

Johns Hopkins Lacrosse 35 1972

Miami (Fla.) Baseball 34 1973

Virginia Soccer 26 1981

Arizona Basketball 23 1985

Michigan Hockey 17 1991

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