Hopkins defense once again playing like a Hopkins defense

A year after first sub.-500 record, Blue Jays have recovered thanks to revamped defense

May 19, 2011|By Edward Lee, The Baltimore Sun

Memories of 2010 — both good and bad — tend to come and go in the minds of the members of the Johns Hopkins men's lacrosse team.

One of those lasting images is the 18 goals Duke scored on the Blue Jays in the first round of the NCAA tournament, sending the proud program to its first sub-.500 record since 1971.

"I think it sat with us a lot," recalled sophomore defenseman Tucker Durkin, a starter on last year's squad. "I think we all remember that game against Duke and kind of looking at the scoreboard as we were walking off the field. We gave up 18 goals, which is kind of a disgrace for a Hopkins defense. So I think we all kind of used that as motivation. We just knew we had to get better and work harder this year. We've been able to do some of those things."

The re-emergence of the defense has aided the Blue Jays, the No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament, in compiling an eight-game winning streak en route to a 13-2 record and a meeting with No. 6 seed Denver in the quarterfinals at Hofstra University on Saturday.

Johns Hopkins has registered impressive numbers on defense this season. After surrendering an average of 9.6 goals in 2010, the current unit is allowing just 6.8 goals per game. That mark is the lowest under a Dave Pietramala-coached club since he became the head coach for the 2001 season.

Opponents have been limited to one goal or less in 32 of 60 quarters. Before giving up 11 goals to Virginia in a 12-11 win on March 26, the defense had held its first seven opponents to eight goals or less for the first time since 1979.

ESPN analyst and former Virginia All-American attackman Matt Ward said the Blue Jays are living up to the expectations that outsiders associate with the program's tradition of defensive excellence.

"Anytime you catch a Coach Pietramala team, you expect the best out of their defense," said Ward, the 2006 Tewaaraton Award winner. "Sometimes it just doesn't work out the way it's supposed to. That was something that Coach Pietramala focused on in the offseason. Look at the recruiting. Look at the players he got. … It's tough to beat those guys one-on-one, but any Coach Pietramala team is going to be sound schematically, and this year is no exception. They're playing phenomenal defense."

And Johns Hopkins has prospered despite fielding a much younger unit than the one that took the field last year. That version boasted three senior starters in defensemen Matt Drenan and Sam DeVore and goalkeeper Michael Gvozden, but the team allowed opposing offenses to score 10 goals or more in eight of 15 games.

While taking great pains to emphasize that the defense's troubles were symptomatic of the entire team's sub-par campaign, Pietramala conceded that he was forced to simplify the defensive playbook last year.

"For whatever reasons, there were certain schemes that we just couldn't execute," he said. "So you're not going to ask guys to execute schemes they can't be successful with. … This year, I feel like we have all of our tools in our box, so to speak, whereas last year, we had to take a few tools out. In a game, we might have said, 'Well, we'd really like to do this, but we don't do that very well, and it's not conducive to this group. So we shouldn't do that then.' This year, I don't feel like we've ever gone into a game and said, 'Well, we can't do that.' It's been more, 'OK, what can we do here? OK, we can do that. We have that in already. Let's do that.'"

Part of the defense's objective was incorporating new personnel into the system. Freshman Jack Reilly joined sophomores Chris Lightner and Durkin as the starting close defensemen, freshman Phil Castronova was paired with senior Tim Donovan as the first short-stick defensive midfielders, and long-stick midfielder Ben Smith, a graduate student who transferred from Harvard, was aided by senior long-stick midfielder Orry Michael.

As important as the lessons learned in practice and film sessions have been, the defensive players have also sought to meet at least once a week for dinner, Donovan said. Whether it's a one-hour meal at a local restaurant or bantering while grilling at a teammate's house, the get-togethers serve to develop a trust between players.

"The system's the same, and most of the players are the same. I think this year, we've really been emphasizing the chemistry of the group," Donovan said. "Not that we didn't have any last year, but I think we've been doing more not only on the field, but off the field as well. We're trying to gel as a collective group. So I think that's helped a lot."

The Blue Jays will face one of their toughest tests in the Pioneers, who not only bring the nation's current longest winning streak (11) but also boast an offense that averages 12.6 goals thus far.

Durkin said the players understand that they are responsible for writing the next chapter in a book that began in 1883.

"I think everyone recognizes that legacy of defense at Johns Hopkins, the tradition of excellence," he said. "That, combined with Coach Petro being a defensive coach, those two combined make you want to have a really good defense and realize that it's a point of emphasis here at Hopkins. You've got to figure it out, and this year, we've done a pretty good job of it."

edward.lee@baltsun.com

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