March 21, 2012

UnCensered: Breaking Down No. 1 vs. No. 2

by Joel Censer | LaxMagazine.com

John Greeley is an X-factor for second-ranked Johns Hopkins in the Blue Jays' showdown with No. 1 Virginia on Saturday. Can Greeley and Rob Guida become consistent enough scorers so Hopkins can more efficiently play their half-field oriented game?
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

Over the past decade, Virginia has owned Johns Hopkins.

Part of the Cavaliers domination could probably be explained by the ebb-and-flow of Division I lacrosse. But even when the Wahoos have been down -- that disastrous 5-8 season in 2004 or when they got bounced in the first round of the 2007 playoffs by Delaware -- they managed to steal games from powerful Blue Jay squads.

Of course, Hopkins did have that moment in the series. You know, "DebrisGate." Where in the 2005 NCAA semifinals -- after an impromptu thunderstorm brought howling winds (and rogue pieces of trash) down to the field level and delayed the game for 30 minutes in the fourth quarter -- the Blue Jays found themselves trailing by a goal with just 13 seconds left.

But Greg Peyser won the next faceoff, rumbled down the field and skipped a pass to Jake Byrne who put a low-to-low slinger through UVA goaltender Kip Turner's legs. During OT, the sun came out, and a JHU freshmen phenom named Paul Rabil found star defensive midfielder Benson Erwin in transition. Erwin, a soft-spoken Baltimore Friends product, deposited the ball the top shelf and made note of his surroundings (the game was being held at the Linc in Philadelphia), by flapping his arms in celebration.

Since snatching victory from near certain defeat though, the lacrosse gods haven't been as kind to the Jays. From 2006 to 2010, Virginia went 6-0 in the series, including a couple demoralizing blowout losses (the curse of Jake Byrne/Benson Erwin, if you will). It wasn't until last year that the Jays exorcized their Wahoo demons, surviving a then entirely dysfunctional Virginia squad in a 12-11 squeaker.

On Saturday, the two Division I superpowers collide in Charlottesville. For the first time since 2003 -- when Tillman Johnson was stoning Kyle Harrison, Adam Doneger, Bobby Benson, Kyle Barrie and Co. in the Mud Bowl -- the Jays and Cavs will be the unquestioned top two teams in college lacrosse. Last year's reigning champions, the 2012 Virginia squad looks coldly efficient, getting opponent's best games (often in hostile environments) and still finding ways to win. For the Hop, the once precocious wide-eyed youngsters have grown up, as Tucker Durkin, Chris Lightner, Zach Palmer and Pierce Bassett have helped lead the Jays to a 7-0 start.

So what we are supposed to expect? Killer mud? Dominant goalie performances? Flying soda cans? Here's your breakdown.

Welcome to the Half-field

We know how Hopkins wants to play. They'll want to slow the game down (while picking their spots in transition), and spit the 'Hoos out the other end of their sharpened, well-honed grinder.

Unfortunately for the Blue Jays, with Steele Stanwick orchestrating the two-man games from behind the net, and Colin Briggs and Rob Emery (and emerging Ryan Tucker) taking care of split-dodging duties from up top, the Cavs are very comfortable playing settled offense (call it the coach Marc Van Arsdale overhand shooting effect).

While Bassett and Durkin are probably the best players at their respective positions, I still think UVA is better suited than Hopkins for a battle in half-field efficiency.

So the question then is can the Hopkins offense keep pace?

Lost in stories about the Hopkins midfielders -- Mendoza-line shooting percentages make for more compelling copy -- is that JHU has been very innovative on offense. We were always taught midfielders need space. Give a guy like Kyle Harrison or Rabil some room and let him run by a guy. A good shot or a slide was bound to follow.

But in its current incarnation, the Hopkins' offense has Greeley and Ranagan doing scripted flip plays and often running towards each other to act as obstruction for the guy dodging. It's smart, unique and matches the involved personnel perfectly.

Still, the Virginia defensive midfield is an athletic and veteran group. I fully expect the Cavs to double or even triple pole the midfield, and invite Brandon Benn and others to beat them off the dodge. Also worth mentioning, UVA defenseman Matt Lovejoy has been playing like a first-team All American.

Advantage: Slight edge to UVA

Between the 30s

I love Hopkins LSM Jack Reilly. He's tough as nails, hyper-athletic and isn't afraid to match up against anyone. But bumping up from close defense to longstick is a huge adjustment. And as good as he on defense, I do wonder if not having a pole with superior stick skills and moxie between the stripes (think a Corey Harned or Matt Bocklet) is a problem come May. Understudy Mark Pellegrino is talented but a freshman defenseman.

Still the Jays have plenty of athletes to run at you. Marshall Burkhart has been recast as a defensive midfielder and is playing the best lacrosse of his career. Mike Poppleton has slid right into the face-off square, winning 65 percent of his draws. Of course, there's Ranagan, an end-to-end Westchester freight train. If he gets a four-on-four with a full head of a steam; watch out.

As for Virginia, the Wahoos may not be as proficient facing off (58 percent this year), but we know they have a whole stable full of premier athletes and proven commodities who can pick up tough grounders, get up and down the field in a hurry, and take advantage of numbers. Briggs is arguably the best way two-way middie for the Cavs since Chris Rotelli.

Advantage: UVA

Intangibles

The game's in Charlottesville and UVA has a bunch of guys who have won championships. I like where Hopkins is headed, but hard not to chalk this one for the Cavs.

Advantage: UVA

X-Factors

Johns Hopkins: John Greeley, Rob Guida

Since arriving at Hopkins, Greeley has had to deal with injuries (including a torn ACL this offseason), some shooting slumps, and the burden of Homewood expectations. Still, the central New York product looked the part of No. 9 last week, dropping two goals and an assist against Syracuse. Meanwhile, Guida, a sophomore jitterbug with a lethal first step scored a goal and dropped two dimes against the Orange.

Really, I think that's the question for the Blue Jays this year. Can Greeley and Guida (and to an extent Ranagan and Coppersmith) become consistent enough scorers so Hopkins can more efficiently play their half-field oriented brand of lacrosse?

Virginia: Chris LaPierre

You could put sophomore sparkplug Bobby Hill here too. LaPierre's going to have to play some mean short-stick defense. Moreover, the Wahoos are likely going to need to tilt the possession game in their favor, generate some unsettled situations and score a couple timely transition goals. Look for LaPierre, a former football star and Virginia's answer to Ranagan, to fill the void.

Prediction

Last week I proclaimed Denver's offense would buoy them to Foxboro and the Carolina offense would start clicking sooner rather than later. So like always, consider the source. But I'll take UVA in this one. Wahoos, 12-8.


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