Monday Morning Midfielder: Baltimore Four Face Major Hurdles, Sacrificial Lambs and Weekend's Best
by Matt DaSilva | Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff
Sophomore John Ranagan (left), an emotional leader for Johns Hopkins and "salty guy on the field," and midfield classmate John Greeley (right) are "keenly aware of each other" this year, said Blue Jays coach Dave Pietramala.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com
The Baltimore Four -- Johns Hopkins' Dave Pietramala, Loyola's Charlie Toomey, Towson's Tony Seaman and UMBC's Don Zimmerman -- convened at Bill Bateman's Bistro last week in a sort of summit to meet and greet the city's fans and media. It got me thinking: which hometown club has the best chance of playing in front of its own fans when the NCAA men's lacrosse championships return to M&T Bank Stadium in May?
All four teams face major hurdles.
Hopkins has to rely on a group of sophomores, plus Kyle Wharton and the mercurial Chris Boland.
Loyola lost its top scorers.
Towson has adopted the word "survival" as its mantra for 2011. That doesn't necessarily inspire confidence.
UMBC stunk last year with a lineup consisting mostly of seniors. The Retrievers have even fallen behind Hartford in the America East pecking order.
And the likelihood of any of these teams still standing Memorial Day weekend probably goes in that order: Hopkins, Loyola, Towson, UMBC.
Let's start with the Blue Jays. As Lacrosse Magazine Online's Gary Lambrecht wrote last week, things have gotten dicey at Homewood these last two years. But head coach Dave Pietramala spoke at the meet-and-greet with refreshing candor about a sophomore class that includes starting goalie Pierce Bassett, starting attackman Zach Palmer, starting midfielders John Greeley and John Ranagan, starting defensemen Chris Lightner and Tucker Durkin.
Bassett could be the key, as he demonstrated with a 20-save performance that got Hopkins into the NCAA tournament. Petro has reportedly had a love-hate relationship with his goalies, including yanking Jesse Schwartzman during a regular season game back in 2007, Michael Gvozden last year and the Rob Scherr-Nick Murtha dance of the early 2000s. But he was impressed with Bassett's resolve and gave him his full endorsement.
"I'm not sure many people years ago would have thought Johns Hopkins would have a starting goalie from Arizona," Pietramala said. "Last year when we thrust him into the starting role, that's a difficult situation for a young man to handle, nonetheless in the middle of a game against Virginia on the road. I think Pierce showed that he possesses a lot of poise and a lot of composure."
But Pietramala wants more leadership and communication out of his 6-foot-3, 205-pound goalie, citing Schwartzman, Scherr and Murtha as examples. "Where asking [Bassett] to break out of his shell a little bit," he said.
Come to think of it, Pietramala wants more out of all the sophomores. Greeley and Ranagan flanked Michael Kimmel on the Blue Jays' first midfield line last year, "but I'm not sure one knew the other was there. They were so entrenched in just trying to do what they were supposed to do," Pietramala said. "John and John are keenly aware of each other's presence this year. I think that personifies this group of sophomores."
Pietramala called Ranagan "one of our emotional leaders" and "a salty guy on the field," while referring to Greeley, Durkin, Lightner and Palmer as "office guys" who are "enjoyable to be around."
But how long will the love fest last if Hopkins stumbles after a soft start to the season, like it did last year in what ended up being its first losing season since 1971?
"These guys can't stand when last year comes up," Pietramala said. "It is like throwing salt in a cut."
And yet the Blue Jays made the NCAA tournament, an accomplishment other teams would relish.
Such are the expectation at Homewood, an all-too-unhappy place the last two years. But what's worse: getting spanked in the first round like Hopkins did against Duke or losing in triple overtime like Loyola did against Cornell?
When the Big East conference caused massive realignment in Division I men's lacrosse, Greyhounds coach Charlie Toomey was one of the coaches who opposed the eventual merger of the ECAC and GWLL. Last year, his concerns were validated.
There's nothing eastern about the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference when you need to fly to Colorado and Kentucky for crucial conference games.
"The biggest challenge of the ECAC is not only learning how to win, how to prepare and beat opponents," Toomey said. "It's learning how to travel."
A 12-4 loss at Denver denied the Greyhounds an ECAC championship. Though Loyola made the NCAA tournament as an at-large contender, the Greyhounds had to play at Cornell, a team that's been to the final four three of the last four years. The Big Red defeated Loyola in triple overtime on a goal by long pole Max Feely.
Four-year starting goalie Jake Hagelin told Loyola coach Charlie Toomey he wants to be a better practice goalie. "I don't want to be just a gamer anymore," he said, according to Toomey.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com
Perhaps things would have been different had the Greyhounds played Stony Brook, instead, as the ECAC champion Pioneers did. With Denver hosting the inaugural ECAC postseason tournament this year, however, Toomey said Loyola's players must learn to adapt better to atmospheric and time zone changes.
"Going out to Denver last year," Toomey said, "we just didn't have the legs."
It won't get any easier for the Greyhounds in 2011, who lost a lot of firepower up front in Collin Finnerty and Cooper MacDonnell, not to mention their top defenseman in Steve Layne. Preseason All-Americans return in faceoff specialist John Schiavone and defenseman Steve Dircks, as does fourth-year starting goalkeeper Jake Hagelin.
Hagelin and senior attackman Matt Langan were two players Toomey emphasized when he said, "it's nice to hear some new voices in the huddle." Toomey said Hagelin walked into his office last week and told him, "I want to be a better practice player. I don't want to be just a gamer anymore." Of Langan, who led Loyola with 18 assists in 2010, Toomey said, "It's his time to lead."
This will be Loyola's first full season in the $62 million Ridley Athletic Complex, including a night game March 16 against Denver. Toomey called the stadium "a beacon on top of a hill " when the lights are on.
A few miles north of that hill, it was almost lights out on Towson's Tony Seaman before his CAA Coach of the Year performance in 2010 earned him a three-year contract. Seaman has not softened the Tigers' non-conference schedule. "We decided to give ourselves a break," he said sarcastically when reeling off the Tigers' first six opponents: Hopkins, Loyola, Mount St. Mary's, Maryland and Navy. All but Navy were NCAA tournament contenders a year ago.
Asked what the Towson's focus would be for the 2011 season, which starts Saturday against Johns Hopkins, Seaman replied in one word: "Survival."
UMBC will have a tough enough time surviving in its own conference. The America East preseason coaches poll has the Retrievers slotted fourth, behind Stony Brook, Albany and Hartford. It's probably not what Don Zimmerman envisioned two years ago when he turned down an opportunity at North Carolina and signed a five-year deal to stay in Catonsville.
The Retrievers were 4-9 in 2010. Most coaches would point to a large senior class and consider it a strength. But for UMBC, Zimmerman said, it was a weakness.
"Those guys had been very successful," Zimmerman said. "They heard it all a thousand times. Maybe them, including me, we've been there before and say, 'Hey, we'll be OK.' Then all of a sudden, we run into a tougher conference and we couldn't stop the bleeding."
UMBC has many positions up for grabs, most notably in goal. Junior Brian McCullough and sophomore Adam Cohen are the candidates. Zimmerman would not name a starting goalkeeper until after the Retrievers' final preseason scrimmage against Drexel.
"Too early to call," Zimmerman said.
Same could be said for this debate. But in the interest of closure, which of the Baltimore Four has the best chance of making it through May?
The sophomores are ready. The last time Petro spoke this effusively of a class of players, Kyle Harrison was still on campus. If not this year, maybe next, but the Blue Jays will be back in NCAA championship contention.
Jon Athens made 18 saves Saturday in Presbyterian's 19-4 loss at Delaware -- a game in which the Blue Hose had just 15 players dressed.
© Kevin P. Tucker
Here's a surprising number. Since 2005, teams that have started new Division I men's lacrosse programs or reclassified to Division I are 127-196. I'm surprised it's not worse.
It would be if you discounted games played against non-Division I opponents, or removed any combination of Bellarmine, Jacksonville and Robert Morris – teams that have bucked the trend, sprung a few upsets and managed to play at or around .500 over that span.
What inspired me to look this up?
First, I wondered if Detroit Mercy cared at all about putting a competitive product on the field after the Titans looked listless in losses to Delaware, Ohio State and Bellarmine -- all before the second week of February. That kind of scheduling implies that Detroit would rather get the season over with than use it to prove it can be competitive without Joel Matthews, its one star player sitting out the season due to academics.
Then we saw Delaware feast on Presbyterian, a team that had just 15 players at its disposal. The Blue Hose had four players out with injuries. Four others were forced to sit as they sort out eligibility issues between the school and NCAA. Presbyterian is in the final season of a three-year reclassification period.
The Blue Hose's old coach, meanwhile, was left to find some redeeming quality in Mercer University's inaugural game, a 20-2 loss at Ohio State. Jason Childs left Presbyterian for Mercer to raise the first Division I lacrosse program in Georgia and make history. But a long road lies ahead.
Player: Zach Howell, Duke
Despite the pressure of being that guy on Duke's attack and some suggesting he did not have the goods to carry the Blue Devils offense, Howell came out roaring with seven goals and two assists in No. 5 Duke's 20-6 win over Siena. That Saints are no patsy, either. They're pegged to win the MAAC title and last year boasted the nation's fifth-best defense in terms of goals allowed per game.
Game: North Carolina 10, Florida 9 (OT)
How to start a Division I program: hire a well-established head coach with recruiting power, give yourself plenty of lead time, invest tons of resources and join a quality conference. Florida did all these things, cracked the top-20 rankings in its first season and in the first game of its second season nearly upended a team that's been to the final four two years in a row. The 17th-ranked Gators were up two with 13 minutes remaining, but third-ranked Carolina fought back to tie it at 8. Two Florida attempts were thwarted in the final seconds. The teams exchanged goals in overtime before UNC's Corey Donohoe's game-winner with six seconds remaining.
Quote: Jenny Levy, North Carolina
"Unfortunately the rules of our game allow you to stall, and since 1994, I've been a huge advocate of a no-stall rule in our game. I think it's really bad for our game for growth, but it's part of our game and everyone does it."
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Translation: "Coach in College Park, where the athletic director had an associate ax Cottle over the phone just days after he led Maryland into the NCAA quarterfinals and weeks before she would herself bolt to N.C. State? No thanks. I enjoy stability and sanity."
Excuse this bit of self-promotion, but for all those in the media who gloss over the box lacrosse and Canadian influences on the U.S. college game, no one has ever dug as deep into their nuances than our own Joel Censer. Look for more from Joel in the coming weeks with his weekly diatribe in "UnCensered."
I love Richie Meade. He's a quote machine. Even if you've grown weary of his constant reminders of "that's what this place is about – fighters," it's readymade motivational material. Sam Jones, a freshman and third-generation Navy lacrosse player, must have heard Meade loud and clear. He scored five goals in his debut, the most by a Midshipman in five years, as Navy went on to beat VMI, 14-8.
Look, the kid's an all-state lacrosse defenseman who spends his offseason in pyramids with the hottest girls in school while you're busy molding your lax-bro flow. It's yet another example of the benefits of multisport participation.
Matt Danowski is in good company with Upper Deck's latest multisport line of trading cards. Bo Jackson was featured on arguably the best and worst baseball cards of my youth. Loved the "Bo Breaker" bat-shattering-over-his-knees one; hated the feminine bat-over-shoulders-with-pads pose. We get it. The guy was really good at two sports. That doesn't make him a model. Are you listening, Will Yeatman?
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