March 20, 2012

Lambrecht: Win Saturday Would Mean More to Hopkins

by Gary Lambrecht | LaxMagazine.com

Johns Hopkins jumpstarted its 13-3 campaign last season with a one-goal win over Virginia at home. On Saturday, the Blue Jays will look to knock off the top-ranked team in the country on the road in Charlottesville, where the Cavs are 5-0 all-time against Dave Pietramala.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com 

Following Johns Hopkins' 11-7 victory on Saturday over a young Syracuse team that is simply not on the Blue Jays' level right now, Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala immediately embraced the underdog role – with a bear hug.

Before Pietramala and some of his victorious players began to take questions from the media, the leader of the unbeaten, No. 2 Blue Jays was already onto the next obstacle, the one waiting in Charlottesville this Saturday in the form of top-ranked, undefeated and defending national champion Virginia.

"I think we've put ourselves in a pretty good position," Pietramala said. "Now, we get to go down to a place against a team that no one is going to give us a chance against."

Hyperbole? Sure, to an extent. If anyone is built to knock off Virginia, especially outside the volatile world of the Atlantic Coast Conference, it's a team like this year's Hopkins crew, with its potentially special blend of a lockdown defense, an arsenal of good shooters, and an abundance of discipline and seasoning.

Playing the "nobody-thinks-we-can" card is one of the more time-honored exercises in the coaching profession. And sometimes, a talented team really can feed off of the perception – self-generated or not – that it isn't good enough. Look how masterfully Virginia rode the underdog label last May, when a messy season culminated with the seventh-seeded Cavaliers becoming the first, five-loss team to win an NCAA crown.

Yet, Pietramala's declaration also is rooted in some thorny history with the Cavs and 20th-year coach Dom Starsia, who is 5-0 against Pietramala in Charlottesville.

Since taking over at Hopkins in 2000, Pietramala has won two national titles, has taken the Blue Jays to six Memorial Day weekends and has compiled a 133-41 record. And No. 1 Virginia clearly has been his No. 1 nemesis.

Under Pietramala, the Blue Jays are 4-10 against the Cavs, accounting for 25 percent of his losses since rejoining his alma mater. The sharpest thorns include a 9-7 loss to Virginia in the NCAA final in 2003, and an embarrassing, 19-8 defeat in the tournament quarterfinals in 2009.

Then, there was that last meeting at Klockner Stadium in 2010, when Virginia sent the Blue Jays home with a 15-6 thumping. That downer portended a 7-8 finish that marked Hopkins' first losing record since 1971.

Last year, behind a core of sophomores led by defensemen Tucker Durkin and Chris Lightner, goalie Pierce Bassett, midfielders John Ranagan and John Greeley and attackman Zach Palmer, the Blue Jays bounced back to finish 13-3. The kick start to their rejuvenation came against – you guessed it. With a 12-11 victory over the Cavs at Homewood, Hopkins went on an eight-game tear that ended with a quarterfinal dud at Denver.

Now, the heavyweights are eyeing each other once again in late March, knowing they could meet again as top four tournament seeds in late May. And Pietramala, besides making the Blue Jays pay in practice this week for playing lazy defense in the fourth quarter against Syracuse and scooping only 17 ground balls against the Orange, is working the "nobody-is-giving-us-a-chance" theme.

It will be interesting to watch the chess match unfold between Pietramala and Starsia. How much zone defense will the Cavs play, especially if they get a two-goal lead or more? Will Virginia take its customary chances, or be content to play for a 9-8 win? Will Hopkins look to push the tempo, or slow down the game on what could be a wet field that probably would favor the Blue Jays?

Will the tag team of Virginia faceoff specialists Mick Parks and Ryan Beniscara wear out Hopkins' Mike Poppleton? How well will the Blue Jays cover the most potent offense in Division I, beginning the game's premier quarterback in Steele Stanwick?

Will Bassett turn the game with some five-star saves against the army of Cavaliers' cutters and shooters? Will the awakened Hopkins first midfield unit build on its best shooting of the young season? Will Hopkins play its best defensive game of the year against an opponent that will demand it?

This game promises to be entertaining. A loss will not be terribly damaging to either squad. But a victory will mean more to Hopkins, who haven't pulled it off at UVA since 1998, and are about to attempt the near-impossible on Saturday. That is, if you believe the winking Pietramala.


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