Going into the 2002 season, men's lacrosse coach Dave Pietramala viewed the Blue Jays as a big unknown. The team had lost 11 players--five of them starters and All-Americans--to graduation, including the core of a talented defense that had guided Hopkins to last year's NCAA Division I quarterfinals. The starting-goalkeeper job, while not vacant, also was up for grabs.
More so than in previous years, Pietramala says, the preseason became a casting call for both the starting squad and for the coveted playing time.
"Ours was a very interesting situation," says Pietramala, now in his second year as head coach. "We graduated a big class that played an awful lot here. Whether we played freshmen or sophomores [this year], we knew coming in that there would be a lot of inexperience on our roster."
Inexperience, yes. Talent, plenty.
As of Friday press time, the Blue Jays were sporting an impressive 9-1 record--seven of its wins against top 20 teams--and were ranked No. 1 in both the STX/USILA and Inside Lacrosse magazine polls. The team began the 2002 campaign with an eye-catching 8-5 victory over preseason No. 1 and defending national champion Princeton. Not bad for what had been called a rebuilding year.
Of the 40 players on the roster, 16 are freshmen and nine are sophomores, making Hopkins one of youngest teams in the nation. The starting squad features four freshmen, one sophomore, and a junior and senior who prior to this season had one career start between them.
Despite all the new faces, the Blue Jays came into the season ranked third. Pietramala, a disdainer of rankings, says he didn't quite share the pollsters' optimism.
"Honestly, I didn't know where we would be," he says. "We thought we were more talented as a team than we were a year ago. But I didn't know if that talent would translate into more wins and less losses. You can only determine those things through each game and each practice."
While the team has been winning, Pietramala cautiously points out that it's only been by the slimmest of margins. Five of the wins have been decided by one goal, already a school record.
Asked to describe his youth-laden team, Pietramala calls it a "work in progress."
"We're playing just well enough to win," he says. "But it's critical now that we continue to improve and do more than just win. We need to play well for the complete 60 minutes. I guess that is our new rallying cry."
Along with youth, Pietramala says, come growing pains and mistakes. Specifically, he identifies inconsistency as the main reason why the team has had so many close games. Inconsistency, he says, that starts on the practice field and then bleeds over into games.
"Things that happen in games are nothing new to us," he says. "Part of our youth is [that] we get a lead, then relax, make a couple of plays and then lose focus."
The missing ingredient, he says, is mental toughness.
For any student-athlete, balancing sports, academics and social life can be a challenge, Pietramala says, more so for a freshman called upon to start and carry a large load his first season. Pietramala points to attacker Kyle Barrie and defenseman Chris Watson as two freshmen who have risen to meet the challenge.
Barrie is the team's fourth-leading scorer, which Pietramala says is quite a feat for a freshman, especially since Barrie typically draws coverage from the opposing team's top defenseman.
Chris Watson, who leads a stingy Hopkins defense, says that both his personal success and the team's good fortunes can be attributed to hard work, the coaching staff and the strong sense of family that pervades this year's lacrosse team.
"The older guys have been really amazing to us," says Watson about the treatment of the freshman players. "All of the upperclassmen have gone out of their way to make us feel like an equal part of the team. And they constantly push us to be better." Off the field, he says, the team socializes as a group rather than breaking off into cliques.
"The whole team is very tight. That starts with the coaching staff," says Watson, a Hodson Scholar who plans to major in international studies.
On the field, according to both coaches and players, senior captains P.J. DiConza and Nick Murtha are supplying the leadership. Pietramala says that Murtha, of all his players, is the one who has stepped up the most vocally to embrace the role--one that may have seemed unlikely just a year ago.
Prior to this season, Murtha had never started a game in goal, and even coming into preseason was not the favorite to win the job as starter.
He had to earn the job in practice.
"He's a great story," Pietramala says. "He could have gone through the motions, but he didn't. He came back his senior year to prove himself. He has earned his place."
Murtha says he equates his role on the team to that of a quarterback: He tries to be a strong, vocal leader on the field, especially with so many underclassmen playing. Yet, Murtha says, this far into the season, the lines blur between being a freshman and a junior.
"After 10 games, you sort of lose the 'freshman,' or whatever year you are, tag," Murtha says. "You just play."
What the Blue Jays lost last year in experience, players and coaches say they have more than made up for in enthusiasm and atheleticism. Pietramala says the freshmen also have injected a healthy dose of levity into the locker room and the game.
"They have brought with them an energy, which is a tremendous asset to a team," he says. "And with this year's team, if there is a tense moment on the field, someone will say something goofy and break the tension. This team has a great deal of personality. I really like that."
Sometimes, however, the enthusiasm can get the best of them.
"We are definitely a young team," Murtha says. "Maybe a little immature at times, but we have a lot of character."
The final games of the Blue Jays' regular season pit them against local rivals--Towson University on April 27 and Loyola on May 4.
Pietramala says that both opponents are "very dangerous" as each is fighting for a spot in the playoffs. Hopkins, on the other hand, has all but locked up a playoff berth. How deep the team goes in the playoffs this year, Pietramala says, likely depends on whether or not the inconsistencies can be cut down.
"I don't think we have nearly reached our potential," he says. "We could not win another game, or we could catch on fire and really make a run at this thing."
Watson says that right now the team is ignoring its No. 1 ranking and focusing on its next opponent. He admits, however, that it's human nature to look ahead, not only to the upcoming playoffs but to the next three years.
"We have a lot of room for improvement," Watson says. "But looking at this group of freshmen that we have, it will be interesting to see how good we can be."