April 18, 2012

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UnCensered: Taking In Johns Hopkins-Maryland, Episode 108

by Joel Censer | LaxMagazine.com

Johns Hopkins looked like they were in typical boa constrictor mode early in the second half, Joel Censer writes, but Maryland pushed back.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

It's an old refrain. Various lacrosse fans letting the Johns Hopkins faithful know that there's a lacrosse reality that exists beyond the Homewood confines.

Of course, there are reasons people like to antagonize Blue Jay fans. All of Hopkins' games are on television, sometimes inexplicably so (everyone wants to see the Siena matchup right?). The preeminent lacrosse announcer is an alum. The various lacrosse publications are in close proximity to campus, leading to the inevitable Johns Hopkins media collusion conspiracy letters to the editor. Not to mention the goading message-board posters, the grinding possessions, the brass band, the banana peels the "1-2-3-4 we want more" chant. The list goes on.

But as a Washington, D.C., resident, I was excited to make my first trip to the college lacrosse mecca and watch the Hopkins-Maryland game through Columbia Blue and black lenses. Removed from the professional football stadiums – which had seemed to sap some of the excitement from the game – Saturday's throwdown was played in front of a standing-room crowd on the Hopkins campus.

Things got interesting when the teams came out after warm ups. Of course, Johns Hopkins was channeling Del Dressel, Craig Bubier, John DeTommaso and John Tucker, among others, by donning throwback jerseys and Bacharach-transforming helmet wraps. To me, the uniform change was a reminder about the program's legacy and its position as a historical benchmark in our sport. A sort of aesthetic accompaniment to the various championship banners hanging up around the field.

The Terrapins ran out a minute later, waving the Maryland flag and sporting jerseys and helmets covered in more state flag insignia. That, too, was a reminder. A small private school in North Baltimore doesn't necessarily represent the state in lacrosse. Forty-five minutes down Interstate-95, there's another heavyweight program with in-state tuition, public funds and an Under Armour sponsorship.

Before the opening faceoff, I couldn't help but reminisce to 2004 and the 100-year anniversary game when both teams rocked retrofitted uniforms. People forget, but the week leading into the game Maryland's flashy star defenseman Chris Passavia had been chirping to the newspapers about how he didn't go to Hopkins because he wanted a more balanced college experience. The Blue Jays were predictably offended, and Conor Ford, a guy known mostly for his blistering shot, set the tone (instead of just his feet) by cracking Passavia on the first play.

Eight years later, we got a similar bloodspat-type game. Early in the second half, Hopkins looked like they were in typical boa constrictor mode: slowly squeezing the Terps with long possessions, scripted two-man stuff off the top, stingy defense, special teams' work and some timely transition.

Until they didn't. Maryland punched back. Even with Curtis Holmes neutralized at the faceoff X, Niko Amato and the Terrapin defense started getting stops. Junior attacker Owen Blye started spinning defensemen into goal cages. And the Terps eventually took control and the music notes out from the band.

As for the gameday ambience, I could not have asked for a better environment. It was sensory overload. Tailgates. ESPN cameras. Photographers. Fiddle sticks. NFL coaches yukking it up on the sideline. At one point during pregame, I listened to a kid who couldn't have been older than 12 talk about how the Maryland half-field offense didn't have a chance against Tucker Durkin and Co. When a ref made a wrong offsides call, you could feel the venom dripping down from the stands.

Maybe Blue Jay fans deserve some good fostered ribbing every now and then and reminders (albeit in anonymous message-board posts) that there's lacrosse beyond the I-695 sightlines. But I thought the Saturday night Baltimore entertainment was a visual reminder why blue chip recruits continue to flock to Charles Street. If I was a 15-year-old lax prodigy who could split and shoot with the best of them, I'd sign up too.

Here are some stream-of-lacrosse-consciousness thoughts from the game.

One Long-Stick Middie to Rule them All

Maryland standout long-stick midfielder Jesse Bernhardt spent much of Saturday's game covering Johns Hopkins jitterbug Rob Guida.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com 

I'll come out and say it. Jesse Bernhardt is as good a defensive long-stick middie since Virginia's Mike Timms. He's more athletic than everyone else. He plays with a mean streak. He's got the whole assortment of stick checks, but never seems to lose positioning. While he may not be Brian Farrell or Joel White, he's still a terror between the lines and bonafide threat in transition.

Whether he was chasing Wells Stanwick or stripping Florida rival Lee Coppersmith or getting a hockey assist to seal the game, I thought he was the linchpin in holding the Hopkins offense scoreless for the last 29 minutes.

After the game, Bernhardt and coach John Tilman talked about how matchups weren't that important going into the game. That they wanted to slide early and slide often (imagine a good political machine playing defense) to midfield dodges and force the Blue Jays to string a couple passes together.

It just seemed like the second half was as much about Bernhardt and the rest of the defense imposing their will over the Blue Jay offense. When Hopkins had a look they either couldn't capitalize or it evaporated too quickly to respond.

A Newfound Respect for Rob Guida

I knew the jitterbug was small. But seeing him up close, he really is a P.J. DiConza-like featherweight (not a shade over 5-foot-6), especially in comparison to linemates Ranagan and Greeley.

But Guida's fearless. It was a huge sign of respect from Maryland -- even if they said the game wasn't about matchups -- that Bernhardt covered him most of the night. Ranagan has made a career dodging a pole.

If any coach ever needs to convince his players that you don't need to be a certain size to play lacrosse he should just show a DVD of Guida ripping the net on that first step-down shot, popping a Terrapin on a looseball situation or giving John Haus the business on defense.

What is Maryland's Ceiling?

It's a good question.

And I wonder if the Terps can score enough goals to get through the playoff gauntlet.

But teams with a grinding offensive unit, athletic defense, and great goaltending -- think Notre Dame in 2010 -- have made playoff runs before. If Curtis Holmes, and I wonder how healthy he really is, starts winning some more draws and getting some 2011 mojo back, I think this is a kind of nuts-and-bolts, hard-nosed team that no one wants to play come May.

Et tu, Hopkins?

Sometimes, I watch the Blue Jays and think I'm seeing the 2007 reincarnate. A team ready to take a stingy defense, great goaltending and a top flight first midfield all the way to the title.

Other times I wonder if they have the punch on offense and are a year away with Wells Stanwick sliding into the Chris Boland's spot on attack.

I do believe Ranagan, Guida, Greeley and Coppersmith are the key. When they are playing well -- penetrating defenses, drawing slides and running those scripted set plays to perfection -- they are a different monster.

In Saturday's post-game press conference, coach Dave Pietramala talked about the offense tightening up, playing "too cute" and getting away in the second half from the things that make them successful. I think he was pointing out that the Jays just spent too much time behind the cage; too much time looking for the perfect shot (remember when Brandon Benn had a 10-yard and decided to re-holster?) and not enough time letting their midfielders run downhill and make plays.

Still, there's a lot of lacrosse to play. The Loyola-Hopkins tiff April 28 will have significance for the first time since Gavin Prout and Mike Battista were running roughshod for the Greyhounds.

Some quick bullet points...

  • John Haus didn't have a ton of success initiating offense. I don't blame him. Hopkins long-stick midfielder Jack Reilly is a big-time athlete who can d-up, unless he's guarding a Bitter. But Haus affected the game in other ways: beating a tough Hopkins clear and later finding Bernhardt breaking out for what became the game-sealing goal. A coaches' son through and through.
  • Maryland's Mike Chanenchuk didn't seem as confident or trigger-happy as usual. He's shooting around 10 percent. But to his credit, he seems to have embraced his role as initiator, making a bunch of great passes, although not all of them were finished. Hopefully, his side-armers start finding net sooner rather than later.
  • Lacrosse Magazine's Gary Lambrecht said this was game where Hopkins really missed defensive-middie extradoniare Phil Castranova, who suffered a torn ACL in the fall. Hard to argue with that. The Jays looked like they could have used a spark between the 30s.
  • Sort of a musical chairs act in that third defenseman spot for JHU. Earlier this season, senior Gavin Crisafulli was replaced by freshman Robert Enright. After Enright got a tough rookie initiation on Saturday though, courtesy of Owen Blye, Crisafulli was put back in. I'm usually not one to think the second cover guy makes or breaks a season, but interesting to consider moving forward.
  • I always root for John Greeley. He seems like a soft-spoken, humble, nice kid. But he's just so big and explosive that I wish he'd dodge North-South more.

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