A class of its own

Stellar group's graduation gives Jays a new challenge

Johns Hopkins' seniors

May 27, 2008

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — FOXBOROUGH, Mass.-- --Coach Dave Pietramala's voice cracked, and he fought hard to hold back his emotions.

After Johns Hopkins' hard-fought 13-10 loss to rival Syracuse yesterday in the NCAA Division I men's lacrosse title game at Gillette Stadium, Pietramala had to say farewell to a senior class that had become special to him and to the university.

Hopkins has one of the game's most storied histories, and the Blue Jays will always draw a lot of the nation's top recruits, but it could take them a year or two to replace the Class of 2008.

This group played in three national championship games in four years, winning two. The Blue Jays had a 12-2 overall record in the NCAA tournament, the most wins by any class since the tournament began in 1971.

Pietramala had to say goodbye to midfielders Paul Rabil, Stephen Peyser, Matt Bocklet and George Castle; attackmen Kevin Huntley and Michael Doneger and defenseman Eric Zerrlaut, among others.

That's a ton of talent. Are the Blue Jays rebuilding in 2009?

"We're not into filling voids," Pietramala said. "You don't fill the shoes of a Paul Rabil, just like you didn't fill the shoes of a Kyle Harrison. You graduate players and ... other players step up to assume new roles.

"Our team will be very different next year. Our makeup will be different," he said. "We're going to have to do different things. You don't replace those guys. Our job isn't to say Paul Rabil is gone, you step in and be the guy. Our team will adjust to the personnel, and our staff will adjust to the personnel."

It won't be easy, because this group helped put Hopkins back at the top of college lacrosse. Before its arrival, Hopkins' last championship came in 1987. Even with Pietramala, who came to Hopkins in 2001, the Blue Jays had come close to winning the title, but they couldn't get over the proverbial hump. This group helped him win in 2005 as freshmen.

Everyone associated with Hopkins lacrosse wanted the Blue Jays to go out as winners yesterday because they had struggled so much in 2008, at one point losing five straight games. A lot of teams would have folded, but the Blue Jays grew stronger.

Hopkins, though, looked tired and worn against Syracuse. Maybe the upset of top-ranked Duke on Saturday in the semifinals took a toll even on a strong team like the Blue Jays. Maybe they needed more than a day to regenerate.

But this was not the Hopkins team we had seen in the previous eight games, and it certainly had not played a team as athletically talented as Syracuse.

The Blue Jays were playing well going into the postseason. They were playing strong defense, and their goalie was hot. They were deliberate on offense and selective in their shooting. I thought they would win against Syracuse.

But an old lacrosse principle suggests that the team with the most talent and depth at midfield usually wins games, and Syracuse went nine deep yesterday.

Midfielders scored eight of the Orange's 13 goals. The Orange out-hustled Hopkins, 44-33, in ground balls, and Syracuse had the ball on offense for most of the second half.

If it weren't for Rabil's six goals and Blue Jays goalie Michael Gvozden being so solid in the first half, Hopkins would have gotten blown out.

"I told you guys the other day Duke had four guys we had to defend, and these guys had nine," Pietramala said. "Well, we didn't do a good job of defending them."

There was consolation for some of the seniors. Rabil carried the Blue Jays offensively. When he came to Hopkins four years ago, he had the potential to become one of the game's best midfielders, and he achieved that goal.

Huntley had some poor work habits when he came to Hopkins, but he became a complete player through a strong work ethic. At times this season, he carried Hopkins, and had two goals and an assist yesterday.

Peyser was one of the team's best midfielders and a dynamic faceoff specialist. From the five-game losing streak, he became one of the team's vocal leaders.

Pietramala likes to point out that three-quarters of this senior class has a 3.0 grade point average or better, and that most of them have already found jobs.

"How do you put into words how special those guys are?" Pietramala asked. You can't. You can't really describe what they meant to the Hopkins program.

The Blue Jays will be successful again next year. They've got a decent talent base, and Pietramala will build the 2009 team around Gvozden, defensemen Sam DeVore, Matt Drenan, Michael Evans and defensive middie Andrew Miller.

Steven Boyle is back on attack, and he'll give the Blue Jays some offense along with midfielders Michael Kimmel and Tim Donovan. You can also be certain that Pietramala will sign his share of high school All-Americans whose dreams are to play at Hopkins.

But there won't be another class like that of 2008. They were tough mentally and physically, twice enduring losing streaks but still advancing to the title game three of the past four years.

And remember, Hopkins plays the toughest schedule in the country.

"This senior class has done unbelievable things," Pietramala said. "Three national championship games and two national championships. They have helped us put Johns Hopkins lacrosse in a pretty good place."

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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