Focus on scooping up ground balls has paid off for Hopkins

Heading into game with Virginia, Blue Jays have relied on hustle plays to win games

March 24, 2011|By Edward Lee, The Baltimore Sun

It's a familiar scene for members of the Johns Hopkins men's lacrosse team.

At halftime and the conclusion of every game this season, after coach Dave Pietramala says what's weighing on his mind, he asks the same question.

"Every time we come off the field for halftime or at the end of the game, the first thing Coach Petro asks before getting the stats is, 'Are we getting the ground balls? Are we winning the ground ball war?'" sophomore midfielder John Ranagan said. "… This year, it's been the one thing we've stressed. A lot of our bigger games last year, we kind of got smoked on ground balls. So this year, we've been really getting after it and with each other and making ground balls our No. 1 priority."

More than shots, turnovers, or clears, ground balls are a pressing concern for the No. 9 Blue Jays, who have improved immensely in that department after struggling last season.

Through the team's 5-2 start, Johns Hopkins has scooped up 37 more ground balls than opponents have. By comparison, last year's squad had only 14 more loose balls over the same seven-game span and finished with 44 fewer ground balls than opponents picked up for the entire season.

Against that backdrop, the Blue Jays welcome No. 2 Virginia to Homewood Field on Saturday. The Cavaliers currently lead Division I with an average of almost 43 ground balls thus far.

Pietramala equates ground balls with rebounds in basketball, and ESPN analyst Matt Ward said collecting more ground balls means extra possessions.

"Any time you can steal possessions, you're going to be in a good position, and when you have the offensive talent that Johns Hopkins does, the more times you have the ball, the better your chances are to light up the scoreboard," said Ward, an All-American attackman who helped Virginia capture NCAA championships in 2003 and 2006 and won the Tewaaraton Trophy in 2006 as the sport's top player. "But if you're getting out-worked on the ground balls, that's usually when you're going to struggle."

After Johns Hopkins limped to a 7-8 record — the program's first losing mark since 1971 — Pietramala vowed, among other aims, to add speed to the offensive and defensive midfields, presumably to keep pace with the likes of Virginia, Syracuse and North Carolina.

Statistically, the changes seem to have worked. Freshman short-stick defensive midfielder Phil Castronova and fifth-year senior long-stick midfielder Ben Smith currently rank third and fifth, respectively, on the team in ground balls, and sophomore defenseman Tucker Durkin has already picked up 17 loose balls after recording 25 last spring.

But Pietramala bristled at the notion that the Blue Jays were lagging behind their traditional rivals.

"You're kind of making it sound like the roof has caved in here. It hasn't," he said. "It was an area — like other areas last year — where we didn't do a very good job of it. So you address it, and we've addressed it. I think we've been more competitive on ground balls. I think we've put more time into practicing ground balls. I think we've tried to make it a mentality in picking up tough ground balls."

With an average of almost 33 ground balls, Johns Hopkins ranks 16th in the nation, but no team is as prolific at vacuuming loose balls than the Cavaliers, who are blessed with exceptional speed and athleticism in sophomore midfielder Chris LaPierre (46 ground balls), senior long-stick midfielder Bray Malphrus (20) and senior midfielder Rhamel Bratton (19).

The importance of ground balls is not lost on Virginia coach Dom Starsia, who guided the program to NCAA titles in 2003 and 2006 on the strength of leading the country in ground balls those years.

"I listen to people talk about shots on goal, and I often hear coaches lament shooting and this or that, but I do think that ground balls reflect the quality of your overall effort, the athleticism of your team," Starsia said. "For us, we always play against teams that try to manage the tempo of the game, and if we're winning ground balls so that we have possession, I feel like we're a tough team to stop."

Johns Hopkins is trying to adopt a similar identity, and players spend every practice completing two or three ground ball drills totaling 25 percent of each session.

"I think we're just taking more time on them this year and really focusing on it," Durkin said. "Coach has really been harping on us to get our noses in, play tough, play fast, and make every one [ground ball] count. So I think we're more focused as a team."

Ward said he's beginning to see the roots of the Blue Jays' efforts, and he thinks the gap between Johns Hopkins and the other teams is shrinking.

"I think with coach Starsia, one of his things is to get athletes, not necessarily just lacrosse players," Ward said. "And those are the guys who are going to stick their noses in there and do whatever they can to get those ground balls. But Hopkins is going to get there. They've got some young kids who are pretty athletic."

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