Finishing first

Seniors' drive will lead Blue Jays to another crown

Johns Hopkins

May 26, 2008

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Syracuse and Johns Hopkins had only one day to prepare for today's NCAA Division I championship game at Gillette Stadium, but coaching doesn't matter at this point.

There are other intangibles, and that's why No. 5 seed Hopkins will complete its unbelievable ride in 2008 and win the school's 10th national championship today against No. 2 Syracuse.

Hopkins has too many factors working in its favor. The Blue Jays (11-5) have a winning streak of eight games, and their style of play is perfect for a run-and-gun team like Syracuse (15-2).

Hopkins has also been on a mission since losing five straight earlier this season, and the Blue Jays' senior class wants to solidify its legacy.

If that's not enough, then here's another convincing factor: Blue Jays goalkeeper Michael Gvozden is beyond hot. His save percentage of .721 in the past eight games and goals-against average of 4.86 are off the charts. Great goalies can carry a team through the playoffs.

Advantage, Hopkins.

This could be a replay of Hopkins' 10-9 upset of top-ranked Duke in the NCAA semifinals Saturday.

"I think Dave Pietramala has done a great job," Syracuse coach John Desko said of his Hopkins counterpart. "I thought if any team was going to have success against [Duke], it would have been them. They controlled the tempo, won some faceoffs, and their big-time players came up big against them when they needed them to."

Now, don't get me wrong. I love Syracuse and watching the Orange play. Syracuse is my favorite team because it plays the game the way it should be played, and the Orange always has some of the game's best athletes.

If Syracuse wins today, it will be because the Orange is loaded at midfield and dominates faceoffs. Syracuse has Dan Hardy, Steven Brooks and Brendan Loftus on the first unit and Pat Perritt, Matt Abbott and Jovan Miller on the second. Syracuse's Danny Brennan has won 201 of 295 faceoffs this season.

I never bet against the Orange, and wouldn't bet against it today, but everything points to Hopkins. Syracuse didn't play well in its 12-11 overtime win against Virginia in the other semifinal.

Hopkins can slow Syracuse. The Blue Jays play a deliberate style, and they work for high-percentage shots. They like to isolate other teams one-on-one in space because the Blue Jays have outstanding players such as midfielders Paul Rabil, Stephen Peyser, Michael Kimmel and attackman Kevin Huntley.

On defense, Hopkins appears to have worked out all the kinks from earlier in the year. It's a vanilla scheme now where the Blue Jays push everything to the outside so Gvozden has a clear look at all shots.

Junior defenseman Michael Evans usually takes out the opposing team's top attackman, and senior Eric Zerrlaut takes out the second best. With Gvozden, Hopkins' defense has been incredible in the stretch.

"I think they've come a long way since the last time we played them," Syracuse attackman Mike Leveille said. "Certainly, we want to be getting high-quality shots and good angles. We don't want to let them force us to poor angles. I think their goalie has come a long way as well. We'll want to be able to get to spots where we feel comfortable shooting."

Against Duke, Hopkins clogged the middle, and it frustrated the Blue Devils. That won't happen to Syracuse. The Orange has been in too many battles with Hopkins. Both teams are battling for a 10th NCAA title. Both teams also are battling for redemption. The Orange dropped to 5-8 last year and failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 1982.

Hopkins lost five straight this season, three straight in overtime. Even some of Hopkins' most diehard fans wondered whether the Blue Jays would make the playoffs.

But here they are back in the championship. A lot of stories have been written about how that losing streak brought the team closer together. That's not entirely true. What the losing streak didn't do was tear the Blue Jays apart.

This has always been a tight team. These Hopkins players are articulate and well-mannered, and they play extremely hard.

The seniors are concerned about their legacy. They didn't want to be part of the first Hopkins team not to make the playoffs since the tournament began in 1971.

Now, the Blue Jays are on the verge of winning their third title in four years, only the sixth time that has happened.

"It's something that's comes up," Huntley said about a third title. "It's something you dream about doing. You don't want to come to this point and not win it. You don't want to harp on it, but if you can get it, it would be very special."

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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