As they do every spring, they handed out diplomas at Johns Hopkins yesterday. Unlike every other year, they handed out only eight of them. The most underachieving senior class in Hopkins history?

No. Hopkins is still turning out enough future doctors to support the syringe industry. The eight sheepskin recipients yesterday were the seniors on the Blue Jay lacrosse team. They couldn't make the regularly scheduled commencement excercises because of a commitment at the NCAA lacrosse championship game in Ithaca, N.Y. Saturday.

To avoid denying anyone the memory of a college graduation, Stephen Muller's the university's president, dressed up the eight players in caps and gowns, delivered a speech and "sent the players off on official business."

Hopkins, the defending national champion, topped Syracuse last week to advance into the final against Virginia, the top-ranked team in the nation and the only team to beat Hopkins this year.

Virginia has had a tremendous season. The Cavaliers have beaten everyone who's anyone in lacrosse -- Cornell, Navy, Maryland, Hopkins, North Carolina. They badly want to win their last game.

Hopkins has to win.

Lacrosse is important to the Hopkins athletic department. It is the Hopkins athletic department. What other college has its homecoming game for lacrosse?

"This is the sport where we're Division I," said Blue Jay Coach Henry Ciccarone. "This is where we mix it up with the big schools . . . Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina. Lacrosse is such a special thing here. I wouldn't be surprised if we have 6,000 to 10,000 students and alumni in Ithaca."

On the surface, it would seem a dismal state of affairs when the high point of a school's athletic year takes place two weeks after the student body has left for the summer, but not at Hopkins.

"Lacrosse at Hopkins is like basketball at Maryland or football at Notre Dame, where it's the main rallying point for students and alumni. Even thought the lacrosse season comes during final exams and after, the whole student body still goes bananas over the team," said Ciccarone.

The delirium hit its nadir early this season when Hopkins was dominated by Virginia and lost, 12-9. "They outplayed us in every phase of the game -- offense, defense, hitting, ground balls. I guess I didn't do a very good job of getting our people ready. The NCAA finals should be enough to have them ready this time."

Ciccarone added: "I guess it would make everything a lot sweeter if we beat Virginia. They've been No. 1 most of the year and if they beat us Saturday they deserve their ranking."

People close to the lacrosse scene are picking Hopkins. They're saying that the Blue Jays just don't know what it means to lose twice in one season, especially to the same team. Ciccarone is inclined to agree, with a proviso.

"I'd say we wouldn't lose twice in one year if we were at peak efficiency, but we have some injuries. Even with the injuriesm, we're playing well. It should be a great lacrosse game."