The word "family" holds a prominent place above the message board in the men's lacrosse team's locker room these days. The term has become a familiar refrain for Blue Jays players and coaching staff alike this off-season and has come to symbolize a growing unity among the team.
The principal purveyor of this family ethic is new head coach Dave Pietramala. Since being handed the head coaching reins in June, Pietramala says he and his staff have focused on building relationships with the players.
Pietramala (pronounced Petra-mala), a 1990 Johns Hopkins graduate, is a firm believer that to get the most from a player, you must first win his trust and respect.
"You can't ask a lot of a person if you don't have a relationship with him," Pietramala says. "There is nothing we will ask our players to do that our coaching staff won't do itself."
Translated onto the lacrosse field, that has meant long and grueling practices for the players, and even longer sessions for coaches, who have been watching "ridiculous amounts" of game tape and holding late-night strategy sessions in preparation for Saturday's season opener at Princeton. Pietramala says this is all time well spent.
"I have always believed the more time you spend together, the closer you will become and the better you will be," he says. "I think as coaches it is our job to put our players in adverse situations in practice, and have them deal with adversity. If you deal with adversity the right way, it brings people closer together, rather than splitting them apart."
It is of little surprise that Pietramala, or "Petro" as he is often called, has quickly earned the attention of the men's lacrosse team. A commanding figure, Pietramala stands over 6 feet tall and has the sonorous voice of a WWF wrestler. He describes himself as an "extremely intense and competitive person," two attributes, he says, that have served him well during his lacrosse career. Considered one of the best defensive players in the history of the sport, Pietramala was a three-time First Team All-American and led the Blue Jays to both the 1987 NCAA Division I championship and an appearance in the 1989 NCAA championship game. He is a member of the All-Time Johns Hopkins Team and, in 1989, his senior year, received the Lt. Raymond J. Enners Award as the nation's most outstanding player.
Pietramala, a native of Long Island, says he owes a big part of his playing success to those who surrounded him back then.
"I was just very fortunate to be associated with some great people, some very talented players and some great coaches," Pietramala says. "You are only as good as the guys that you are around, just like coaches are only as good as their players."
After concluding his career at Hopkins, Pietramala entered the coaching ranks with a one-year stint at nearby prep power Gilman. He returned to Homewood as an assistant in 1991 before taking assistant coaching positions at the University of Pennsylvania and at Loyola. He spent three seasons (1995-97) as the defensive coordinator at Hopkins, helping the Blue Jays to a 31-11 record, three trips to the NCAA tournament and two appearances in the Final Four. He helped guide the 1995 team to a 12-0 record in the regular season and the top seed in the NCAA tournament.
His most recent coaching stint was as head coach at Cornell, where he resurrected a faltering lacrosse program. The year before Pietramala took over as head coach of the Big Red, the team had a 3-11 record. In three seasons as Cornell's head coach, Pietramala guided the team to a 23-17 record, an appearance in the 2000 NCAA tournament and a final national ranking of ninth in the 2000 STX/USILA poll. Cornell was the only team in the nation to beat eventual national champion Syracuse during the 2000 season, and the Big Red finished second in the Ivy League, with a 5-1 conference record.
Pietramala says that leaving Cornell, and his players, was not an easy decision to make. In fact, with a scrimmage against his former team looming on the horizon, Pietramala says the emotions he felt then are all coming back to him.
"Two of my most difficult days as a coach were the day I left here to go to Cornell, and the day last June when I decided to return to Hopkins. My wife and I both cried when I left Cornell," he says. "To turn that program around and leave after three years, after we had those guys believing in us, was very, very difficult. We had very strong relationships with those players, and it was hard to sever those relationships to come down here. However, it was an opportunity to do something that very few people have the chance to do, and that is coach at your alma mater. It is a dream come true for me."
Pietramala is the 22nd coach in the 117-year history (112 seasons) of the Hopkins lacrosse program. He says he has little time to dwell on his good fortune, however. Front and center in his thoughts is the season opener against Princeton, the pre-season No. 2 team in the country. Princeton, which returns with most of its roster from last year's Final Four team, poses a major initial test for the Blue Jays. Pietramala says he wouldn't have it any other way.
"Everyone wonders, Why do you play Princeton the first game of the year? That is crazy. But hey, it's just as difficult for them to play Hopkins the first game of the year," Pietramala says. "For both teams it's a game where you find out where you stand. I would rather know right off the bat what we are good at, what we are not good at, what we have to work on and what we can continue to use, rather than find out three weeks into the season."
Hopkins comes into the season ranked fourth in the country. But don't tell that to Coach Pietramala. A disdainer of rankings, Pietramala is quick to point out where his Cornell team was picked in the preseason last year, 18th, and where it finished.
Pietramala says his success at Cornell is a telling sign that college lacrosse is a different animal than it was during his playing days. During the 1970s and 1980s just a handful of teams dominated the sport: Hopkins, Virginia, Syracuse, North Carolina and the University of Maryland, College Park. He says there is much more parity in lacrosse today, and one doesn't have to look any further than the success of programs such as Princeton, Duke, Loyola, Georgetown and Notre Dame.
"Very few, if any, of those programs were a Final Four- caliber team when I played," he says. "That has been the greatest difference in the sport. There are not just four or five high-caliber lacrosse teams anymore; there are a bunch. That is because there are more kids playing at the youth level and high-school level. What you get is more talented lacrosse players that are pursuing lots of different school options."
This parity, Pietramala says, makes the road to the Final Four a more uphill battle. Yet he understands the tradition of lacrosse at Hopkins and the expectations of success that lead into every season.
When asked what Hopkins has to do to return to its glory days, Pietramala says he doesn't measure success just by winning a national championship but by what his players are like both on and off the field.
In locker room speeches, Pietramala tells his players that they should always handle themselves in an appropriate fashion, be polite and "be great representatives of our university, our lacrosse program and our families." That means making sure his players take their hats off when they enter a building, apply themselves in their studies and come to every situation prepared and focused.
In the mold of NFL coaching legend Vince Lombardi, Pietramala is a big fan of the motivational quote. For instance, Pietramala has hung a sign over the locker room door that reads "I will give my all for Johns Hopkins today, " and he makes sure each player touches it every time he leaves.
"It might seem silly, but one of the motivating factors for these guys should be how fortunate they are to be here," he says. "I don't expect our guys to be like players of the past, or teams of the past. Each team is different. But we need to have respect and reverence for those who have come before us and what they have accomplished. It is a privilege to wear a Johns Hopkins jersey."
With just days until the season starts, Pietramala admits he wishes he had a little more time--both to prepare his players and for preseason injuries to heal themselves. He likens the Blue Jays' locker room to a triage as he lists the current collection of broken hands, feet and hamstring injuries.
"You name it, we got it," Pietramala says with a smirk. "But we would rather have this adversity now. Again, learning to deal with adversity will determine how successful we will be. And like any family, we will stick together, no matter what obstacles come our way."
The opening game of the 2001 men's lacrosse season is at 1 p.m. on March 3 at Princeton. The first game at Homewood is at 1 p.m. on March 10 against Hofstra. For a complete schedule, go to http://www.hopkinssports.com.