More than an hour remained before the start of the men's lacrosse game between Johns Hopkins and visiting Maryland this past April, yet two of the three student sections at Homewood Field were full. The students chanted "air-ball" at Maryland's practice shots that went wide of the goal and cheered their team on and off the field during warmups.
The fervor began earlier in the week, when Hopkins players noted that students they had never met came up to them to wish them good luck or congratulate them on their strong start.
"The support we get is amazing," said junior midfielder Matt Rewkowski, a transfer from Duke. "It's not really the norm for our sport. To be honest, it took a little while to get used to."
But that's lacrosse at Johns Hopkins, the school founded in 1876, fielded its first lacrosse team in 1883 and won its first title in 1891. The Blue Jays have won 42 titles in all. Yet they haven't won one since 1987, a 17-year drought that could end this weekend as No. 1 Johns Hopkins (13-1) plays No. 4 Syracuse (13-2) in an NCAA tournament semifinal at 2:15 p.m. today at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.
The first semifinal pits No. 6 Princeton (11-3) against No. 2 Navy (14-2). The winners will play in the championship game Monday at 2:30.
Johns Hopkins Coach Dave Pietramala was a starting defenseman on the 1987 title team. He since has been an assistant at Hopkins, Penn, Loyola (Md.) and was the head coach at Cornell before coming back to Hopkins in 2002.
"Am I surprised Hopkins hasn't won a title in a while?" said Pietramala, repeating a question. "Yeah, I would say I'm surprised."
The Hopkins drought came at the same time as Princeton, Syracuse and Virginia began to dominate the sport. Those three teams are 10-2 against Hopkins in the playoffs dating from the 1987 title game.
"A lot of people are saying what Hopkins hasn't done," Pietramala said. "But the only three teams who have really done anything are Virginia, Syracuse and Princeton. I believe Hopkins is starting to do that stuff now."
Pietramala is doing all he can to bring the title back to Hopkins. His sign-off on all of his letters to his players and to recruits, parents, alums and fans is not "regards" or "sincerely," but "win."
"That kind of symbolizes who he is and the competitor he is," Rewkowski said. "A lot of us feed off that competitive attitude."
Pietramala also sends daily e-mails to the team during the season. Sometimes they can be brief, a thought or two about practice or something he wished he had told the team but forgot. Sometimes they are longer. He also sends quotes from people such as Vince Lombardi.
He said the message he would send before they left for the final four: Well done is better than well said.
Lacrosse is the signature sport at Hopkins. The school holds its homecoming in the spring. The sport's hall of fame is right on the border of Homewood Field. And the team has traditions unlike any other program.
Before the first home game of the year, the team captains hang small flags on the backs of the goals to commemorate those former players who died in World Wars I and II and the Vietnam War. Three small stars represent each war.
The school band plays the fight song after every goal, after which the fans count off the number of goals and finish by saying, "We want more!"
After the game, fans sitting in front of the band give the players bananas if they have played well.
"I was coming to games as a young kid, and I was probably 12 or 13 when I started noticing those traditions, those little nuances," said Conor Ford, the team's leading scorer. "Though I have no idea what the bananas mean."
The encouragement is not confined to Homewood Field. Every Monday during the season, former Hopkins coach Bob Scott calls to congratulate Pietramala on a win or give him encouragement following a loss.
"I don't want to stick my nose into things," said Scott, 78. "My call is strictly supportive. . . . I saw [Princeton Coach] Billy Tierney last June, and he told me nobody works as hard as Dave Pietramala and that Hopkins will be winning championships before too long. The program is right at the top level again."
For the players, it is just at the right time.
"We have a lot of people pulling for us," Rewkowski said. "It would be huge thing for everyone if we could" win the title.