Making the pilgrimage to Homewood Field for men's lacrosse games isn't as much fun in February and March as it is in May, when the weather is usually glorious and the national championship is so often within reach. But this year, those early games in chilly conditions before bundled-up crowds promise to be critical to the Blue Jays' chances down the stretch.
Fans can once again count on Hopkins to be in the hunt for the national title come the NCAA championships in May. One preseason poll ranks the team as the fourth-best in the country. But if the Blue Jays are to bag their first title in 11 years, it will be because the team survived--and perhaps learned how to thrive--in a tough stretch of cold-weather games early in the season.
"May is the most important month, obviously," says Coach Tony Seaman. "But, ideally, it's what you do in March that gets you prepared for the games in May."
That may prove to be more a truism this year. In the season's first four weeks, Hopkins plays all three teams ranked above the Blue Jays in the Lacrosse Yearbook preseason poll. The Jays will trot out their young and relatively untested defense against defending champion Princeton at Homewood Field on Feb. 28. The Blue Jays host Syracuse on March 14, and they travel to Charlottesville to play Virginia on March 21. (North Carolina, another preseason Top 10 selection, visits Homewood Field on March 28.)
"That stretch is really going to put our young players to the test," Seaman says. "They're going to go through the ringer. By April, they're not going to be freshmen anymore."
In his eight years at Hopkins, Seaman has seen quite a few young players face such tests. The coach recalls the first time Brian Kuczma and John Gagliard--the now-graduated duo that formed the heart of last year's defense--took the field in their freshman year. "They got rung up for goal after goal after goal. They were like cash registers," Seaman says, chuckling over the memory. "Gagliardi looked at me after that game and just said, 'Oh ... my ... God.' "
Dudley Dixon also remembers the feeling. Now a senior co-captain, Dixon remembers his introduction to top-flight collegiate lacrosse as a jarring experience. "I learned that the intensity of the game is just unbelievable," Dixon says. "And I learned the kind of shape you have to be in to play at this level. Every game, you're going up against incredible athletes."
Dixon, a transfer from Towson University, survived those early tests and became a star. In his first season of eligibility at Hopkins last year, the psychology/sociology major scored 45 goals, registered 20 assists and earned second team All-America honors. Dixon will lead the Blue Jays' attack this year, along with senior Dave Marks, a transfer from Villanova heading into his second year at Hopkins; senior Dylan Schlott, who scored eight goals last season while taking just 17 shots; and junior Jason Moolenaar, who missed much of the 1997 season with an injury.
The attack no doubt will benefit from the presence of the most talented--and deep--midfield unit Hopkins has fielded in a long time. It will be led by sophomore A.J. Haugen, senior co-captain Andrew Godfrey and junior Matt O'Kelly. The second midfield unit likely will be led by senior A.T. Bailey, who scored three goals and chalked up 14 assists last season, third most on the team. Seaman anticipates that it will be the strongest midfield unit he's ever had at Hopkins.
As a result, look for the team to adopt more of an uptempo style this year. "We'll be much quicker," Dixon says. "We'll be more of a run-and-gun-style team, and that's because we're going to have the best midfield in the country."
With such impressive talent returning on attack and in the midfield, a lot of early-season attention will be focused on preparing a relatively untested defense performing under the direction of a new coach, Brian Voelker. (Dave Pietramala, last year's top defensive coach, is now the head coach at Cornell University.)
Voelker, a Hopkins alumnus, served as a defensive coach at Princeton last year. In his senior season, the 1991 campaign, he earned first-team All-America honors. He is one of four ex-Hopkins players selected to represent the United States in the 1998 World Championships, to be held this summer at Homewood Field.
The two most experienced players on Voelker's unit will be junior Rob Doerr, who will be switching to a new position, and junior John Paleologos, who is coming off an injury. The third defensive spot will go to one of two freshmen, Brandon Testa or Brendan Shook.
The unit will open the season against a Princeton attack that Seaman thinks could be "the best attack group ever assembled." That match--and the subsequent games with Princeton, Virginia and North Carolina--will present quite a trial by fire for the Blue Jays' young defenders. Plus, it will be opening day at Homewood Field, which creates even more pressure. (The annual Johns Hopkins Lacrosse Face-Off is scheduled for Feb. 27, the evening before the home opener as always.)
Info: How To Get Your Lacrosse Tickets
Students are admitted to all regular season games free of charge with their student IDs. Homewood faculty and staff are eligible to receive two free tickets to each of the eight regular season home games. These tickets are available on weekdays through March 13 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the main office of the Department of Athletics. You must show Hopkins identification. Additional season's tickets may be purchased for $40 for general admission and $80 for reserved seating.
"Nobody can prepare you for that day when you're a freshman," Seaman says. "Thousands of people, all those alumni, all the media. And Princeton is here."
One thing the defense will be able to count on is the experience of returning goalie Brian Carcaterra, who limited Princeton's attack to just seven goals--half the Tigers' average for the season--in a road game last year. Backing up Carcaterra once again this year will be senior Eric Kuchner.
Pollsters and media observers have lodged the defending national champion Tigers as a prohibitive favorite to win the title, a turn of events that makes Seaman bristle a bit. "They're talking as if the rest of us are playing for second place," the coach says. "Well, the games are played on the field."
And out there, anything can--and frequently does--happen. Seaman compares Princeton's position as favorite this year with that of the Blue Jays' 1995 unit, which went into the season ranked No. 1 and then put together an undefeated regular season, only to lose a heartbreaking semifinal match to Maryland in the NCAA tournament. Seaman is also quick to point out that Princeton escaped with a pair of one-goal victories in last year's NCAA tournament before winning the title.
Seaman feels that eight to 10 teams have a chance to win the title this year, and one of those, needless to say, is his own team. "Nobody on this staff comes out and says that our goal is the championship," he says. "There are thousands of alumni who go around saying it. But around here, everybody just accepts it. That's what we're playing to accomplish."
Dixon not only accepts it; he relishes it. "Absolutely," he says. "The national championship is the only goal."
Heading into his last shot at the proverbial brass ring, what message does the fifth-year player deliver to his less-experienced teammates?
"You're only here for so long," he says, "so you've got to give it all you've got. I've been at it for five years, because I sat out a year when I transferred, but it's gone by incredibly quickly."
Can't Catch A Game? Watch It On TV
This season, it's showtime for Hopkins lacrosse. At least five Blue Jays games will be televised in the coming months, including three contests slated for live broadcast on Baltimore's ABC affiliate, WMAR-TV, Channel 2.
How long has it been since a Hopkins game aired on one of Baltimore's network affiliates? Long enough in the past that no one around here can remember what year it was or which station it was, says assistant athletic director Andy Bilello with a laugh.
The expanded television lineup--the other two TV games will air on the Home Team Sports cable network--grew out of meetings last summer among the Athletic Department staff. "We wanted to explore what we could do to improve the exposure of Hopkins lacrosse," Bilello says. Those meetings led to more meetings-- with HTS, with Channel 2 and with an array of potential sponsors for broadcasts.
The payoff comes this spring for Baltimore-area viewers, who, in addition to the quintet of game broadcasts, will be able to keep up with the Blue Jays as the season progresses by watching head Coach Tony Seaman and former Blue Jay goalie Quint Kessenich on The Hopkins Edge: 1998 Blue Jay Lacrosse on HTS.
The show debuts at 9:30 p.m. on Feb. 27, the eve of Hopkins' opening game against Princeton. There will also be a mid-season episode and an NCAA Tournament preview episode. (Broadcast times for the second and third shows have not yet been set.)
The Channel 2 broadcasts--April 11 against Maryland, April 25 against Towson and May 2 at Loyola--reflect that station's growing commitment to local collegiate athletics. (Its first major foray into this strategy came several weeks ago, with the airing of a basketball game pitting Coppin State against Morgan State.)
The people at Channel 2 are looking to expand that coverage, Bilello says. They're looking at the stations they compete with, and they're trying to bring to the sports audience something unique and close to home.
The games on Channel 2 will air live, with Kessenich and sportscaster Keith Mills behind the microphones. The games on HTS will air on tape delay (the Feb. 28 Princeton game will air at 7:30 p.m. on March 4, and the March 14 Syracuse game at 1 p.m. on March 15). Key corporate sponsors of the broadcasts include Ikon Office Solutions, Toyota, STX lacrosse equipment, Fila athletic shoes and DeJarnette medical imaging.
If all goes well, of course, Hopkins will make more than the
five television appearances currently planned. Key NCAA
tournament games are also broadcast on Home Team Sports, and the
Blue Jays, of course, are hoping to be playing in those