March 26, 2012

Monday Midfielder: Inside Johns Hopkins-Virginia

by Matt Forman | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter


Johns Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala stopped John Ranagan during a postgame interview outside a victorious locker room and said, "Don't get too big of a head. We've got another game on Sunday."
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com 

The "nobody believes in us" mantra is one of the most overused in sports. Backs against the wall, us against the world, needing to prove everybody wrong — they're all efforts to create a chip on the shoulder.

Real or perceived, it was the card Johns Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala played as motivation for the Blue Jays' trip to Charlottesville, where they hadn't won since 1998, and faced top-ranked, unbeaten and defending national champion Virginia.

"We get to go down to a place against a team that no one is going to give us a chance against," he said after Hopkins beat Syracuse two weekends ago.

After Hopkins exorcised that 14-year-old Cavalier demon in what certainly ranks as the Game of the Year thus far, Pietramala won't be able to embrace the role of underdog. The Blue Jays — for the first time since 2008 — are the No. 1 team in the country.

Now Pietramala's job is to make sure Hopkins doesn't get too far ahead of itself. He started the task Saturday, no more than minutes after John Ranagan's game-winning goal sent the Hopkins faithful into a frenzy.

In his post-game huddle, Pietramala delivered this message: "We won the game. Enjoy it, but it's time to move on. We've got to get ready for North Carolina."

He echoed similar sentiments to the assembled media.

"This team has shown it's got some character," he said. "But we're going to have to show something else now. We're going to have to show that we can handle a big win and play a quality Carolina team on the road. That's a challenge for us."

And shortly thereafter, with Ranagan speaking to The Monday Midfielder outside the Hopkins' locker room, Pietramala interjected: "Don't get too big of a head. We've got another game on Sunday."

Ranagan shook his head. "Great win. It was a lot of fun. But we're moving on," he said. "It's on to UNC. It's only midway through the year. We have another half of a season and then the postseason still."

The season is young. But there's still plenty to learn from Saturday's showdown...

Five Takeaways from No. 2 Johns Hopkins at No. 1 Virginia

1. May Preview in March?

Despite some uncharacteristic fourth-quarter and overtime sloppiness, Johns Hopkins and Virginia solidified their status as the nation's top two teams Saturday. The question was asked almost immediately: Will there be a rematch in May?

Pietramala made several boxing references during his pre- and post-game comments, so sticking with his theme: If Saturday was Round 1, can we expect Round 2 in Memorial Day Weekend?

"We'll probably see them again at some point," Ranagan said.

Said Virginia goalie Rob Fortunato: "Hopefully we'll see them down the road."

"If we see them again later on this season, it'll mean that we've done well," Pietramala said. "I'm certain they're going to do well. I don't wish to see anybody. But, if we happen to see them again, then I'm certain we've both done pretty well."

So few games live up to their advance billing, but Hopkins-Virginia did. An encore only seems appropriate.

Because, as Pietramala said: "This game, in the end, means nothing."

Said Starsia: "Of the four championships we've won since I've been here, we've lost to those guys three times during the regular season. Coaches use whatever information they have to the best of their ability. If we had won today, I would be telling our players about continuing to work hard and remaining undefeated. With the loss, you're always looking for ways to encourage. It's all part of coaching."

2. Hopkins Pushes Pace of Play

There are arguments aplenty on both sides of the shot clock debate — The Monday Midfielder took a stance last week — and in recent years, Hopkins has been labeled as methodical, systematic and, at times, slow.

But as the Blue Jays showed Saturday, they can push the pace and play up-tempo with anyone. Though Virginia had a sizeable advantage in time of possession, Hopkins still took 34 shots and often looked for the quick strike. The Jays were not once called for a stall warning.

"Anybody who says we're not willing to play fast, they can watch this game," Pietramala said.

And then, when asked about what it says about his team's ability to win an up-and-down game like Saturday's, Pietramala almost took a page out of Herm Edwards' playbook.

"You play to..." Pietramala said, before changing course. I couldn't help but finish his sentence, "win the game."

He continued... "I'm just tired of hearing it. My job, Dom Starsia's job, every coach's job in America isn't to please the media, isn't to please others, it's to win games. And it's to put our players in the best position to be successful as men and as players. If that means playing slow, then that means playing slow.

"I felt they took chunks of time off the clock early. But I have great respect for how they play offense. Great respect. It's smart. They tire you out, they wear you down, and then ? boom! ? they go."

3. Going Toe-to-Toe Athletically

Did you see Lee Coppersmith's game-tying goal with 44 seconds left in regulation, when he charged in from the midfield on a substitution, slipped a pair of defenders and broke down the Virginia defense? Hopkins looked like it was prepared for the Cavaliers to play their 3-3 zone, but when Virginia came out in man-to-man, Pietramala knew there were few defenders in the country who could contain Coppersmith on an isolation — even Chris LaPierre, who has arguably the longest short-stick in the country.

Did you see long-stick midfielder Jack Reilly's end-to-end goal in transition that tied the game at 6 —the first time Hopkins drew even — midway through the third quarter?

Both plays were two quick examples of Hopkins' athleticism, which had been called into question over the past several seasons. Safe to say those questions no longer exist. This is the fastest and most athletic Blue Jays team since the 2005 national championship squad.

"I was pleased to see that we matched up athletically, because I measure a lot of where we are athletically against that team, because I think [coach Starsia] recruits athletic guys."

Said Starsia: "[Hopkins is] clearly more athletic, faster, more experienced than they've been the last couple of years. They're big. Their defensemen can all defend. They have a good group of middies there. They push the ball up the field. Those weren't things you were saying about them in every instance the last couple of years. That's one of the best teams in the country."


Mark Goodrich and a host of Blue Jay defenders played well on Saturday, allowing Jack Reilly to focus on Colin Briggs and Tucker Durkin to duel with Steele Stanwick in one-on-one matchups.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com 

4. Inside the Assignments

Virginia has so many weapons on the offensive end that opponents are forced to pick their poison... What player are you going to try to defend with a short-stick?

It was an interesting matchup decision for Hopkins to put shorties on Rob Emery and Chris Bocklet, Virginia's two leading goal scorers, for much of the second half Saturday.

Seniors Marshall Burkhart and Mark Goodrich, and freshmen Nikhon Schuler and Mike Pellegrino did a remarkable job of helping to contain the Cavaliers' potent offense. That allowed Reilly to concentrate on Colin Briggs, and Tucker Durkin to duel with Steele Stanwick.

"We knew they were going to have a great defense, and they did," Stanwick said. "They made us work for everything."

On the other side of the chess match, Virginia opted to double-pole the Hopkins' midfield, specifically targeting Ranagan and Rob Guida, and often putting Matt Lovejoy on Zach Palmer and Scott McWilliams on Brandon Benn.

5. Marquee Matchup

But Saturday's headlining individual matchup was Stanwick-versus-Durkin: the reigning Tewaaraton Trophy winner against one of the best cover defenders in the country.

Both players had their moments. Stanwick scored two goals and set up three others; Durkin caused a pair of turnovers.

"Listen, one guy doesn't do a job on Steele Stanwick," Pietramala said. "Tuck played him as well as he could have. [Stanwick is] a guy that, if you slide to him, he can beat you off the pass. If you don't slide to him, he can beat you off the dodge. I know Tucker prepared very well and took this matchup personally, because he thinks the world of Steele Stanwick."

One of Stanwick's two goals came in an empty-net situation after Hopkins' goalie Pierce Bassett left the cage to pick up a cutter. The other came late in the fourth quarter when he bull-rushed from near goal-line extended and forced Durkin to lose his footing.

Two of his assists were on nifty pick-and-roll situations with Bocklet and Matt White, the latter of which scored on a no-look, behind the back finish. The third assist came in an extra-man opportunity.

A few other quick thoughts from Hopkins-Virginia:

- Is sixth-year senior and captain Chris Boland nearing return? And if so, how will that impact Hopkins' offense? For the second consecutive week, Boland dressed in full uniform and went through warm-ups showing no ill effects of the collarbone injury he suffered in the season-opening game against Towson. Initial estimates — again, this is speculation — said Boland would be out four to six weeks, and it has been five since the injury occurred.

- How impressive was the goalie play Saturday? Fortunato made 14 saves, many of which were from point-blank range, and Bassett made nine. "Both goalies were terrific," Pietramala said. "They both made a case to be All-Americans."

- Did anyone else do a double take on Hopkins freshman Wells Stanwick's second-quarter goal, dodging from behind and tip-toeing along the crease before beating Fortunato? Wait a second, was that Steele or Wells? "Steele is a wonderful player," Pietramala said. "And I have a better sense for how good he is by having his brother, who's a younger version of him and hopefully one day will be as talented as Steele." 

- Speaking of the brothers' Stanwick, what was it like to play against each other? "It was fun," Steele said. "I'm happy for Wells. He did really well. He held his own and he looked good. I definitely paid a little bit more attention to their offense. It was fun playing against him." It was the second time they had faced each other, by the way, when Wells was a freshman at Boys' Latin (Md.) and Steele was a senior at Loyola Blakefield (Md.). That game was won by the Dons, 8-5. So if you're keeping score: Steele 1, Wells 1.

- How about the spark Hopkins freshman Drew Kennedy provided at the faceoff X in the second half? Kennedy won 8-of-14 in the second half after Mike Poppleton struggled (3-of-10) against Ryan Benincasa.

- Did you notice the sharp Canadian finish by Blue Jays' attackman Benn and Zach Palmer? They forced Virginia out of its 3-3 zone defense and into man-to-man.

- How good is Virginia freshman midfielder Ryan Tucker? Playing alongside Emery, Briggs, White and Company, Tucker flies under the radar. But he had two of the game's bigger goals Saturday, including one late in the fourth quarter that looked to be the game-winner before Coppersmith scored the equalizer. It was a Howitzer that cherry-picked the top right corner of the cage.

- Not that Virginia didn't know this already, but every opponent they play is going to give the Cavaliers their best shot. When you're the reigning champs, that's the reality you face. "This is kind of the meat of our schedule," Steele Stanwick said. "We welcome the challenge." Virginia has played three one-goal games and a two-goal game already, with Maryland, North Carolina and Duke as the next three on the schedule.

- A 12-11 defeat at the hands of Hopkins last year started the same stretch in the schedule that saw the Cavaliers lose three of their next four games. Everyone thought the wheels were coming off the tracks until Stanwick led an improbable run to the title. "Every game we play, we get better from it. I'm sure we can learn a lot from this one, especially as we open ACC play," Stanwick said. "There's still a lot of lacrosse left to be played. If you remember last year..."

Tewaaraton Tracker

The Monday Midfielder took a stab two weeks ago at identifying the top 25 Tewaaraton Award candidates. Now that we've made it roughly halfway through the season, we'd like to make the "Tewaaraton Tracker" a regular fixture. Check it out here in LaxMagazine.com's blog section.

*****

Good day, and good lacrosse.


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