April 5, 2013

MD1 Notebook: St John's Joins Parity Party

Albany-Johns Hopkins meet in intriguing Friday night matchup

by Gary Lambrecht | LaxMagazine.com


"It's been a slow and steady progression, in terms of the number of wins and quality wins," St. John's coach Jason Miller said.
© Lee Weissman

St. John's junior attackman Kevin Cernuto hinted that, before taking the field in South Bend on Saturday, he sensed the Red Storm had top-ranked Notre Dame exactly where it wanted the Fighting Irish. So after St. John's justified Cernuto's confidence by knocking Notre Dame on its heels early and keeping the Irish there throughout a 12-10 upset, Cernuto dismissed the notion that anything shocking had occurred.

"To tell you the truth, none of us thought we were going to lose that game. We knew it would be a tight Big East game, but our offense was ready to roll and we ran with it," said Cernuto, who left his stamp on the Irish with four goals and three assists.

It was truly a throw-down kind of day for 14th-ranked St. John's (7-2, 2-1 Big East). Behind its potent transition game sparked by a hard-riding attack that foiled five clears and created several costly turnovers, the Red Storm took leads of 5-2, 10-6 and 12-7.

A week earlier, the Red Storm had barely cracked the top 20 for the first time, and just missed joining Bucknell as the only unranked Division I school ever to beat a No. 1 team on the road. The Bison did it to Maryland in 2006.

St. John's, which, behind Cernuto and junior Kieran McArdle, is off to its best start since reviving its men's lacrosse program in 2005, has cranked out one of the nation's higher-octane offenses (11.9 goals per game) for much of 2013. And the Red Storm provided some Notre Dame foreshadowing last year.

In the Big East tournament, the fourth-seeded Red Storm stunned the top-seeded Irish, 8-7. Since Notre Dame went onto the NCAA tournament semifinals, while St. John's dropped the Big East final by eight goals to Syracuse and settled for an 8-7 record, not much was made of the Red Storm last May.

But clearly, under seventh-year coach Jason Miller, St. John's has been building something good. Miller replaced Rick Sowell, who left for Stony Brook (and is currently at Navy) after getting the program back off the ground for two years. The school had discontinued lacrosse in 1995.

"It's been a slow and steady progression, in terms of the number of wins and quality wins," said Miller, who left UMass coach Greg Cannella's staff after the unseeded Minutemen carved a surprising path to the NCAA tournament final in 2006.

"We've committed all along to doing things the right way," Miller added. "We play a good schedule. We foster a blue-collar, earn-everything-we-get mentality. Everybody has good players, full coaching staffs and scholarship money. Our talent has gotten better as our recruiting has gotten better. From our standpoint, [the Notre Dame win] was not a stunner. Our kids are tough."

Before last year's winning season, the Red Storm had taken baby steps forward. They went a combined 5-29 in league play in their former existence in the ECAC over five seasons, before joining the Big East in 2010. Before last year, St. John's had never won more than five games total in seven previous seasons.

The Red Storm appears to have a firm seat at the sport's parity party. They appear headed for a 10-win season. With Cernuto and McArdle — who ranks second in the NCAA with 6.9 points per game — St. John's has the look of an upstart that isn't going away.

"A lot of us have been together for three years. Last year felt like a steppingstone, and this year we're more experienced. We're vibe-ing really well," Cernuto said. "The chemistry is definitely at an all-time high."

Friday night fireworks expected

No. 20 Albany (6-3, 1-0 America East) will bring a pretty good vibe to Homewood Field on Friday night, where No. 10 Johns Hopkins (6-3) will face the Great Danes under unusual circumstances. The Blue Jays need this game more than Albany.

While Hopkins is still looking for a marquee win — its blowout over 5-5 Virginia on March 23 has lost steam — Albany has a huge, season-opening, 16-15 victory over Syracuse in the Carrier Dome in its pocket. The Blue Jays got badly out-played at Syracuse after losing to Princeton in March, before dropping an 11-10 decision last week in an overtime classic at No. 4 North Carolina.

Albany brings the game's most explosive offense (15.1 goals per game) behind arguably the game's most dynamic player of 2013 in midfielder Lyle Thompson, who leads the NCAA with 64 points (25g, 39a).

"[Thompson] is Gary Gait with more quickness and less size," Albany coach Scott Marr said.

By the way, the Great Danes are 5-1 on the road and have won two of five games in which they've given up 15 or more goals. And their defense is getting better.

Still, it's hard to imagine anything but fireworks taking place at Homewood under the lights.

Transition Tar Heels

Speaking of Carolina, the Tar Heels already were long committed under coach Joe Breschi to an up-tempo style. The rule changes this year have only served to feed the beast in Chapel Hill, where Carolina (7-3) has run off four straight victories.

Breschi said a midseason breakdown of statistics has revealed that the Tar Heels have scored 47 of their 122 goals in "unsettled, transition or early-offense" settings, while Carolina's opponents have managed only 16.

The Carolina attack has been as great as advertised. Marcus Holman, Joey Sankey and Jimmy Bitter have combined to produce 69 goals and 49 assists. As expected, Holman (24, 23) looks as if he will go deep into the Tewaaraton Award competition.


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