Introducing the Program That Needs No Introduction
BALTIMORE This is where we are in our backward-logic, little world of sport: Johns Hopkins winning the national championship in men's lacrosse was thought of as a spoiler story, the one angle that could ruin the pixie-dust run at redemption by Duke.
That's right, the most successful program in the history of the college game was cast as the Evil Empire on Monday -- the Yankees with sticks and masks. Dave Pietramala, Hopkins's slightly gruff taskmaster of a coach, wore a Darth Vader-black polo pullover to prove it.
"We were the fourth wheel at the final four," he said in the sticky heat of M&T Bank Stadium, where the largest crowd ever to watch an NCAA lacrosse game saw Hopkins hold off Duke, 12-11, in an absolutely riveting thriller.
Said Jake Byrne, a mop-headed senior from Landon School, "There was the Cinderella story in Delaware, the nation's team in Duke, there was an undefeated No. 1 in the nation team in Cornell and we were just there."
Byrne woke up Monday and watched a story about the national title game. He did not recall hearing his school's name mentioned once, which ticked him off. It was still all Duke, all the time -- a year later. The last charges against three Duke players were dropped at midseason and, last Byrne checked, two teams were playing for the title in Baltimore.
"I felt bad they lost, but I would have felt the same way if Virginia had lost the national title," Byrne said. "This was about a lacrosse game, not off-field events that happened a year ago. If anything, it brought us negativity and didn't make people in the sport out to be the right kind of people."
The right kind of people, that's what this tale unfortunately became about. It should have been a tremendous matchup between elite lacrosse teams. Period. Instead, the entire weekend became a moral referendum on student-athletes, namely Duke's. In a sport fed by America's private-school system (read: predominantly white kids from families with disposable incomes), the Blue Devils went from being called "hooligans" by an ambitious and misguided district attorney to being cast as vindicated heroes after charges were dismissed for their wayward, off-campus kegger.
Duke received more attention for what was wrong with lacrosse in the past year than all the things that have been right with the sport at a place like Hopkins since 1883 -- the year of the Blue Jays' first intercollegiate game. Since then, there have been 44 national championships and a tradition surpassing Notre Dame in football and Kentucky in basketball.
It was only fitting that the man known as "Petro," who guided Hopkins to its second title in three years, won when his players held Duke's potent offensive duo of Zack Greer and Matt Danowski to one goal. Pietramala was perhaps the finest defensive player to ever mark an attacker as a Blue Jays player. When Hopkins beat Duke in 2005 for the title, he became the first man to play for a championship team and coach one.
Yes, he was harsh on his kids in practice. Byrne and senior Brendan Skakandi spoke afterward how it was nothing for Pietramala to send a player off the field if he erred -- embarrassing him in front of his teammates. He tried them mentally and emotionally to see how badly they cracked. He acknowledged his Lombardiesque methods might deserve scrutiny.
"I bear my criticism for that," he said afterward. "I have no problem with that, I am a big boy. I believe in it and I believe it's shown through our kids and in our program."
Who could argue with the results in the clutch? In seven seasons under Pietramala, Hopkins is 30-6 in games decided by one goal. The Blue Jays won their last six one-goal games this season and have won nine overtime games in a row. When it gets close, the other teams buckle. Pietramala's preparation is legendary, and it showed against a freewheeling Duke team that simply did not have enough gas to overcome a six-goal halftime deficit.