After Johns Hopkins lost to Navy, 9-8, on Saturday for its sixth loss in seven games, Blue Jays coach Dave Pietramala came out of the shower and noticed he had five messages on his cell phone.
They were from a 12-year-old kid the Blue Jays had adopted who was battling cancer.
"He told me to tell the players to keep battling, and not to give up," Pietramala said. "Everybody has their own difficult situations, but that put things in perspective."
Hopkins (5-7) is going through some tough times. So tough, in fact, that the Blue Jays might miss the NCAA tournament for the first time in 39 years.
While failing to make the tournament has happened to other storied programs, such as Virginia in 2004 and Syracuse in 2007, Hopkins had always managed to escape the bug. But with only two games remaining — against No. 19 (6-5) Towson and No. 6 Loyola (6-2) — there is a possibility the Blue Jays might not make the field even if they win out.
Pietramala, though, keeps grinding. That's all you can do as a coach.
"Our fate was in our own hands," he said. "If we had beaten Navy and then won out against Towson and Loyola, then we're in. If we beat Towson and Loyola, with their strong RPI ratings and Towson's strength of schedule, we have to be at least considered. I'm not saying we're definitely in, but at least we'll be discussed if we get back to .500."
That won't be easy. Towson has won five straight, and Tigers head coach Tony Seaman, a former Hopkins head coach, would like nothing better than to be the team that finished off the Blue Jays.
And then there is Loyola. In their series, once known as the "Charles Street Massacre," Hopkins holds a 44-3 advantage. If the Greyhounds really want to show that they have arrived on the national lacrosse scene, they need to beat Hopkins.
It's an uphill battle. The Blue Jays have made similar climbs before midway through the season, but never this late in the year, which is why Pietramala has his program under scrutiny.
"You just keep moving forward because that's your job as the leader; it's our job as a staff," said Pietramala. "You keep correcting things, you keep coaching. You look at the execution on offense and defense, and let them know when it's not good enough, and when it is good enough. You never stop teaching. You keep hammering the stone."
It's not like the Blue Jays are in a full rebuilding mode. They've been blown out in only two games — against Virginia and Hofstra. Three of their losses have been by one goal — to Navy, Maryland and Princeton. But in the past couple of games, Hopkins has lost games in the middle of the field by not winning the ground ball battles or losing on faceoffs.
There might also be an issue with speed. Pietramala will thoroughly evaluate the program after the season.
"My responsibility is to these kids, and we'd be fools as coaches not to take a look at everything," Pietramala said. "Do we need to do something different as far as summer recruiting? What do we need to do different on offense or defense? Do we need to open it up more? But the first thing we will look at is ourselves, and to be honest, I have to look at the way I communicate with these kids.
"We've already changed the way we warmed up for games, and it has helped us because we struggled in that area early in the season," Pietramala said. "The only thing that won't change is our standard as far as performance on the field, academically and how we handle ourselves socially. It is a privilege to be a coach and a player here at Hopkins, and we all need to remember that."
It is different at Hopkins. The Blue Jays have won 44 national titles since claiming their first in 1891. At Hopkins, everybody seems to have played the game or been a coach or referee. According to Pietramala, he has received a lot of support from those in authority.
And he doesn't mind criticism from those who aren't.
"People here care, and it's better to have fans who care than those who don't," Pietramala said. "Hey, we're 5-7, so we have to put up with the criticism."
But don't count the Blue Jays out. Virginia coach Dom Starsia isn't.
"In the middle of these things, when you're at one of these programs, it's terrifying. You feel like you will never win again," Starsia said. "Your self-confidence gets dramatically, ridiculously low — not from the chirping outside, but the demons inside your own head."
"What has happened to Hopkins has happened to us, Syracuse and Princeton," Starsia said. "You just need to have complete confidence in yourself and let your players know they are doing the right thing. You have to remain and keep the atmosphere positive. I know that Hopkins will bounce back next year. Heck, they might come back this year. I wouldn't count them out."