Return flight

Blue Jays reach final for 2nd year in row, will face Syracuse

Johns Hopkins 10 Duke 9

NCAA tournament semifinals

May 25, 2008|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,Sun reporter

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- In the second period of an NCAA lacrosse semifinal yesterday at Gillette Stadium, Johns Hopkins senior attackman Kevin Huntley scored one of the prettiest goals of the tournament.

Huntley slipped through a crease in Duke's defense, took a pass from sophomore attackman Steven Boyle and, without looking, whipped the ball behind his head. Blue Devils goalkeeper Dan Loftus didn't even see the shot until it hit the back of the net.

It turned out to be the perfect metaphor for the perfect upset. Underdog Johns Hopkins played with confidence and creativity, and heavily favored Duke was left stunned as the Blue Jays surprised the lacrosse world with a 10-9 victory that almost no one saw coming.

Huntley scored four times, but the real heroes were goalie Michael Gvozden (17 saves) and Hopkins' defense, which will again be tested by Syracuse in the national championship game tomorrow. The defense allowed the Blue Jays to slow the game, control the action and bottle up one of the best offenses college lacrosse has seen in a long time.

Duke had five players this year whom the NCAA granted a rare fifth season of eligibility after rape and kidnapping charges against three other players - which were eventually dismissed - led to the cancellation of much of the Blue Devils' 2006 season. Those five players returned to Duke after losing to Johns Hopkins last year in the national championship game at M&T Bank Stadium, and it made the top-seeded Blue Devils heavy favorites this season and coming into yesterday.

But when it was over, Duke was heartbroken again, and Johns Hopkins' players were throwing their sticks into the air in celebration. Even Blue Jays coach Dave Pietramala - who will try to become the first coach in 10 years to win back-to-back national championships - was rendered nearly speechless by what happened.

"Wow," Pietramala said to open his post-game news conference. He rubbed his face, shook his head and then paused for several seconds while trying to figure out what to say next. In the end, it didn't matter. "Wow," seemed to sum up the game from the Blue Jays' perspective beautifully.

"That was a great lacrosse game," Pietramala said finally. "I'm kind of humbled at what our guys were able to do today. I think we overcame an awful lot of odds."

The victory was even more surprising when you consider all that Johns Hopkins has been through this season, trying to find an identity. When the Blue Jays were good, they were brilliant. In the second game of the season, they thumped longtime rival Princeton with such ease - jumping out to a 10-1 lead and cruising to a 14-9 win - it looked as if they hadn't even broken stride since winning the 2007 national championship.

But a brutal schedule (Hopkins played nine ranked teams in the regular season) and some sloppy play made the Blue Jays look mortal in midseason. In April, after getting hammered by Duke, 17-6, they found themselves staring at a five-game losing streak, the longest in the school's history, which dates to 1883.

It looked as if they might even miss the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1971, an embarrassing possibility for a defending national champion that returned eight starters.

Something clicked, however, after the Blue Devils stomped Hopkins in Durham, N.C. The Blue Jays were forced to re-evaluate their team chemistry and approach.

"I don't think we really changed. I just think we all started to take a little more accountability," Huntley said. "We came together instead of falling away from one another. We started going out dinner together. We came to practice with a good attitude instead of thinking we were going to have to run because we'd lost. Once we started doing that and stopped gripping our sticks so tight, I think that's when we became the team we wanted to be."

Hopkins closed out the regular season by rattling off five consecutive wins, then defeated Hofstra (a team that stunned the Blue Jays earlier in the season) and Navy in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament. Gvozden, in particular, got on track. Early in the season, he acknowledged that he was trying too hard to be an intense, fiery leader. His game took off when he returned to his laid-back style, which is what Pietramala fell in love with in the first place when he recruited Gvozden.

"If you look at him, he looks like he just stepped off a surfboard," Pietramala said. "He's not that rah-rah guy. He's just a happy-go-lucky kid. ... You saw him grow up today in front of your eyes."

Pietramala tried to deflect credit to his staff and his players, but some credit still deserves to be given to the coach. Under Pietramala, the Blue Jays have not lost to the same opponent twice in one season. Tomorrow, Hopkins will try to become the first team to repeat as national champs since Princeton won three consecutive titles from 1996 to 1998. Syracuse beat the Blue Jays, 14-13, in overtime this year.

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