Blue Jays' defense takes off

Resilient unit is the measure of a red-hot Johns Hopkins team

Final Four Previews -- Johns Hopkins

May 24, 2007|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,Sun reporter

It is not as experienced or airtight as it was two years ago. Back then, the defense was dotted with All-Americans and typically set the tone for a Johns Hopkins men's lacrosse team that went undefeated and won the school's first NCAA title since 1987.

This year's Blue Jays defense has been shaped in part by youth, injuries, changing roles, an inspirational comeback story, and an evolution that included some serious stumbles in the early going.

And one of the reasons the third-seeded Blue Jays (11-4) are riding a seven-game winning streak into their 27th NCAA tournament final four is that the Hopkins defense has found its footing.

During the streak, the defense has allowed an average of 7.3 goals, more than half a goal less than the season average. Last week's 14-6 rout of sixth seed Georgetown in the quarterfinals offered some timely evidence of its growth.

While the Blue Jays' shooters were cranking up early, Hopkins slammed the door on the Georgetown offense, holding it scoreless for a 29-minute stretch, during which the Blue Jays took a 6-1 lead.

The man-down unit, shaky early this season, stuffed the Hoyas on five extra-man chances, including a defining three-minute stretch to start the second quarter, after attackman Kevin Huntley drew a nonreleasable penalty for an illegal stick violation.

The defense was largely at fault during a three-game losing streak that dropped the Blue Jays to 4-4, and probably will cost Hopkins some All-America recognition. Its most recognizable face, goalkeeper Jesse Schwartzman, the NCAA tournament Most Valuable Player in 2005, has had an up-and-down senior year, but has rallied of late -- much like the rest of the unit.

"It's all about the `we' and not the `me' with this group," Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala said. "These guys are selfless. They've done whatever we've asked them to do, and we've had to do a lot."

For starters, Hopkins was hit by costly injuries. Early in the fall, senior defenseman Eric Zerrlaut went down with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee. Then it got worse. Shortly into the preseason, sophomore Matt Drenan -- the team's best defenseman and one of its top athletes -- tore an ACL, knocking him out for the year.

And thus, a game of musical chairs was set in motion. Sophomore Michael Evans, who had moved from short-stick midfielder to close defense in the fall, became the designated stopper, the guy who would cover the opponent's best attackman.

Fairfield transfer Matt Bocklet, a junior and originally the backup to senior long-stick midfielder Brendan Skakandi, gradually was inserted on close defense, where Bocklet knocked junior Ben O'Neill to man-down duty. Bocklet's stickwork and ground-ball prowess -- which have cleaned up the clearing game -- were deemed too valuable for a part-time role.

And before those changes took hold, not long before the season opener, the Blue Jays learned Zerrlaut's knee was healing at an astounding rate. Nearly five months after suffering the injury, Zerrlaut was ready to go as Hopkins' primary crease defender.

"A lot of roles have shifted, and I think what's happening now is a compliment to how everyone has handled that," said Zerrlaut, who takes one or two days off a week from practice to address the soreness in his knee.

"There was no way I was missing this season. There were a lot of long hours [in rehabilitation]. There's a difference between wanting something and fighting for it."

Bocklet, who is tied for the team lead with 67 ground balls, added, "You never want to lose your best player [Drenan] at a position. I was almost in awe the first few games, playing for this team and trying to find my role. I think the defense came together after that three-game losing streak. We found some chemistry."

Others have emerged. Freshman defenseman Sam DeVore, a player Pietramala likens to former All-American Chris Watson -- he started for four years and was an anchor on the 2005 defense -- has come on strong as the fourth defenseman. DeVore is likely to start next year.

Short-stick midfielders Andrew Miller and George Castle have been mainstays from the outset. Then there's Skakandi, maybe the most underrated contributor.

At 5-foot-10, 180 pounds, Skakandi played at Famingdale (N.Y.) in the shadow of more-heralded recruits, such as Duke attackman Matt Danowski, Syracuse defenseman Steven Panarelli and Towson attackman Jonathan Engelke.

Skakandi, who plays up top and barks out signals along with Schwartzman, has been solid for two years. With Bocklet playing down low, he has taken on a huge share of exhausting minutes. When he isn't tracking the opponent's best midfielder, he's running on and off the field.

"It's pretty tiring. I'm usually asleep most of the day on Sunday," Skakandi said. "We do what we have to do."

Hopkins associate head coach Bill Dwan, who teams with Pietramala to coach the defense, marvels at the perseverance he has witnessed.

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