Jays thwart Duke dream

Record 9th lacrosse title came down to Hopkins' play, not rival's troubles

May 29, 2007|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,Sun Reporter

Johns Hopkins lacrosse coach Dave Pietramala - a bear of a man with a consummate 5 o'clock shadow, a neck thicker than an oak tree and a stare that could freeze a mugger in his tracks - sat down in a plastic folding chair yesterday and grinned.

All around him, on the turf field of M&T Bank Stadium, his players were celebrating the Blue Jays' emotional, exhausting and unexpected victory in the NCAA championship, a 12-11 triumph over Duke University. They snapped pictures, they ran laps around the stadium and they flipped their gloves and sticks into the stands, into the arms of grateful grade-schoolers.

The win, in front of a title-game record crowd of 48,443, had just given the Johns Hopkins University its ninth national championship in lacrosse, breaking a tie with Virginia for the most in NCAA history. But Pietramala needed a second to soak up the moment. He couldn't help but chuckle at the strange, yet satisfying, mountain his team had just climbed.

Though Hopkins was playing just four miles from home, Pietramala and his players said they never felt that the crowds pouring into stadium - or the thousands watching on television across the country - wanted them to win. This championship, in the eyes of many, was supposed to be about redemption for Duke's program.

It was being portrayed, perhaps a bit too conveniently and simplistically by much of the national news media, as a way to right an embarrassing wrong.

The school had canceled the Blue Devils' 2006 season after allegations that three lacrosse players had raped an exotic dancer at a team party, and when those allegations turned out to be false, a team that had been cast as pariahs suddenly began to receive much of the country's support.

When Duke took the field yesterday, the crowd gave the Blue Devils a much larger and more enthusiastic reception than the Blue Jays received.

"It was weird and it was strange," said Pietramala. "But we made it about the field, not the crowd."

To be cast as both the underdog and the villain in Duke's redemption story was the perfect motivation for Hopkins senior Jake Byrne, who scored four goals in the victory.

"You wake up this morning and see ESPN do a story on the Division I national championship game, and they don't even mention Johns Hopkins once," he said. "I took it personally. I hope our whole team did. I think it was a motivating factor. [Duke] went through a whole bunch of stuff, and it's amazing how they could come back from that, but I think this game was more about lacrosse."

Most of it was about lacrosse, especially for Hopkins goalie Jesse Schwartzman, who deflected a last-second shot by Duke to preserve the Blue Jays' victory.

Schwartzman, who grew up in Owings Mills and graduated from Pikesville High, put aside some shaky play earlier this season and ignored a mountain of criticism from the Hopkins faithful, making 15 saves in the final en route to being named the tournament's most outstanding player.

Still, the emotions of the event were impossible to ignore. At the final horn, a number of Duke players dropped to their knees in anguish, and on the field and in the locker room, many Blue Devils players shed tears of disappointment for coming up short after all the program had been through.

"[Our bond] is tough for you guys to understand," said Duke attackman Matt Danowski, who choked up several times during the postgame news conference.

"You haven't been through what we've been through. Nobody else has. The bond that we share is something that only we will ever understand. I can't describe it in words how much these guys mean to me. I'm going to miss it."

For Pietramala, the only man to win a title as a player (at Hopkins in 1987) and as a coach (2005, 2007), it was a satisfying culmination to a season with plenty of anxiety. At one point, the Blue Jays were 4-4 and in danger of missing the tournament, and were the subject of criticism.

"Why would you want to be anywhere where they don't care as much?" asked Pietramala. "It's neat to be at practice and see those four or five guys [alumni] sitting up there watching practice, scrutinizing everything we do, the guys we call Murderers' Row.

"That's cool. I would rather take criticism than be somewhere where you lose and they say, `Oh well, good try.' It's like the Yankees. That's what makes Johns Hopkins really special."

Before Pietramala left the field, he made sure to tuck a pair of black-handled scissors - ones his team had used to cut down the nets in victory - into his back pocket. He looked like a man who intended to use them again and again, for seasons and years to come.

kevin.vanvalkenburg@baltsun.com

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