National champ Blue Jays could keep ascending

May 30, 2007|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN REPORTER

To put itself in position to win the ninth NCAA championship in school history, the Johns Hopkins men's lacrosse team had to attack the flaws that sent the Blue Jays into a midseason tailspin that threatened their tournament hopes.

During the nine-game, season-closing winning streak that culminated with Monday's 12-11 victory over Duke at M&T Bank Stadium, the Blue Jays got better in all phases of the game and saw fine leaders emerge among the junior class, led by midfielders Paul Rabil and Stephen Peyser.

Here's a scary thought about Hopkins as it turns its attention to defending its second national title in the past three seasons: Next year's team will be a senior-laden group, backed by numerous younger players who made strong contributions during the Blue Jays' unlikely ride.

The Blue Jays may have fed off the underdog role this time, as they made enough plays as a No. 3 seed to knock off top-seeded Duke. But in 2008, it will be back to business as usual at Homewood, where Hopkins can expect to be ranked No. 1 in the preseason.

"We've got to figure out a way to make sure our kids are focused and we handle this the right way," Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala said. "We struggled handling it [in 2006]. I believe it starts with leadership."

Pietramala has said that, after Hopkins rode a superb senior class to a 16-0 finish and a title in 2005 - the school's first since 1987 - the Blue Jays suffered from a leadership void last spring. Hopkins was 5-4 after nine games and finished with a 9-5 record and a loss to Syracuse in the tournament quarterfinals.

This year, with a team short on seniors, Hopkins found new leaders in the form of Rabil and Peyser, who also happened to be the key performers down the stretch.

Not only is Rabil the early favorite to be next season's Player of the Year, but he also is the guy who ripped into his team late last month after a sluggish half at Mount St. Mary's. Peyser, besides sparking his team's second-half surge with his faceoff play, then finding his shot in the tournament, made a habit of speaking to the team the night before each game late in the season.

"Those guys are better prepared for what's to come next year," Pietramala said. "They're roommates, line mates and they're already motivated."

The 2008 roster looks imposing. Hopkins will return eight starters, its entire second midfield, a great faceoff man, its top two short-stick midfielders and several other backups who helped the Blue Jays (13-4) become the first team to win it all with four losses since Virginia did it in 1972.

Rabil, Peyser and freshman Michael Kimmel are back. They combined for 66 goals and 43 assists this season. Junior attackman Kevin Huntley (31 points) and freshman attackman Steven Boyle (37 points) return, as does sophomore Tom Duerr, who scored a goal in each of the last three tournament games.

Defensively, the Blue Jays lose goalie Jesse Schwartzman and long-stick midfielder Brendan Skakandi, and freshman Michael Gvozden could take over the job in goal. The defense in front of him could be stacked.

On close defense, senior Eric Zerrlaut will use his final year of eligibility, while sophomore Michael Evans - maybe the most improved player as a shut-down, cover guy - will be seasoned.

Pietramala might move junior Matt Bocklet back to long-stick midfield and make room for Sam DeVore on close defense. He gave Hopkins some excellent minutes as a freshman.

And then there is Matt Drenan, who was the best defenseman on the team as a sophomore before a preseason knee injury did him in for the year. Drenan has three years of eligibility left.

The memories of this team will linger for a long time with Pietramala.

There were the precocious starts by Kimmel and Boyle, who carried the offense early. The three-game losing streak, the first since 1990. The up-and-down play of Schwartzman, and the early struggles of the defense. The scoring slumps endured by Huntley and Peyser, and Rabil's emergence as a great passer. And the way the Blue Jays never stopped plugging with a team that lacked the talent of the 2005 squad, but not its heart.

"The journey was so different," Pietramala said. "[In 2005] we didn't have a blemish. This one was marked with some cuts and bruises and scrapes. And all of a sudden, here we are."

gary.lambrecht@baltsun.com

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