March 13, 2013

Lambrecht: Blue Jays Preparing to Enter Phase Two of Season

by Gary Lambrecht | LaxMagazine.com

Johns Hopkins has rolled over its early-season competition, but the schedule toughens starting with a trip to rival Syracuse this weekend.

Johns Hopkins has taken care of much of its business, as phase one of its 2013 mission has concluded. With Saturday's trip to archrival Syracuse, the No. 4 Blue Jays will be ramping up their schedule in familiar and telling ways. Hopkins then will tangle with Virginia at M&T Bank Stadium and at North Carolina, before going to Maryland in mid-April.

What to make of the Blue Jays (5-1) so far? Like most teams in Division I — except for top-ranked Maryland, who isn't used to steamrolling opponents so much this early — Hopkins is a mixed bag of progress. Its attack has been superb, its midfield uneven, its defense a little spotty, its ball handling and ground ball play a bit too sloppy, its faceoff game spectacular behind specialist Mike Poppleton.

The Blue Jays have developed some intriguing depth while rolling to predictable victories over Siena, Michigan, Towson, Mount Saint Mary's and UMBC by a combined score of 76-36. During this span, a number of players have also taken turns sitting out games because of a violation of team policy related to a preseason incident involving multiple team members.

Freshman attackman Ryan Brown has been a revelation as an extra-man force with seven goals and 10 points. Junior midfielder Rex Sanders (seven goals, 44 percent shooting) has stepped up in the absence of injured Rob Guida, who probably will not return until the end of the month. Junior defensive midfielder Phil Castronova (three goals) is moving nicely after missing last season with a knee injury.

The Blue Jays, who absorbed their lone setback, 11-8, at the hands of a young, promising Princeton team — blame bad shooting and untimely turnovers — are in a transition mode in more ways than one.

Besides the schedule that is tripling in degree of difficulty, the Blue Jays are getting up and down the field more often than ever under 13th-year coach Dave Pietramala, who likes the hustle and work ethic of this group a lot. He also likes the long view his upperclassmen are taking this spring.

After back-to-back, strong regular seasons that have yielded collapses in the NCAA tournament quarterfinals, the Blue Jays aren't getting overly excited about the chances to beat some of their old rivals in the coming weeks. They would rather build methodically toward playing their best lacrosse in May.

"We've changed our philosophy. We're playing faster. We're trying to be more of a quick strike team. It hasn't been crisp or fluid all of the time," Pietramala said.

"We're getting to the point where the offense has to stop leaving [goals] on the table. Sometimes we get caught trying to get up and down [the field] on defense, and we aren't fundamentally sound. But we've already got four goals from our defensive midfield. We haven't had four goals from them in the last three years.

"I feel like we can win in different ways now. I'm excited about what we're doing. I don't think we've played like a top 5 team. We're still putting it together. Let's face it. We've put it together too fast, too soon [in recent seasons]. Our guys understand that."

Some good things are definitely happening. The Blue Jays have averaged 14 goals on 41 shots per game, and the starting attack of Zach Palmer, Brandon Benn and Wells Stanwick has been very productive with 38 goals and 22 assists. Stanwick (12g, 11a) has been especially aggressive.

The first two midfield units (not including Sanders) have shot terribly at times, but also are feeding other shooters better in the face of aggressive slides. The defense, with mainstays in goalie Pierce Bassett and close defensemen Tucker Durkin, Chris Lightner and Jack Reilly, has been inconsistent, as it figures out when to extend and when to stay home, while Castronova and long-stick midfielder Michael Pellegrino are itching to fly down the field as offensive weapons.

Hopkins has plenty to iron out, as it steps up its search for its first NCAA tournament final four berth since 2008. The most encouraging thing about one of the more scrutinized teams in the sport is that Hopkins, with lots going for it, doesn't appear headed for an early peak in its journey.

Win or lose in the hostile Carrier Dome against the Orange on Saturday, the Blue Jays look like a team full of developing parts that is building toward something bigger.


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