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Sophomores playing key role in success of Hopkins men

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About two or three times a week, as many as a dozen sophomores on the Johns Hopkins men's lacrosse team congregate for dinner at Nolan's, a restaurant on the school's campus, before heading to a suite occupied by attackmen Zach Palmer and John Kaestner and midfielders John Ranagan and Lee Coppersmith.

Thursday nights are a popular time because of "Swamp People," which has replaced "Entourage" as the TV show of choice. An Xbox is always nearby. And conversations usually wind their way back to lacrosse.

"We're pretty close as a class," said sophomore defenseman Chris Lightner, a Timonium native and Calvert Hall graduate. "Everyone is friendly and we hang out together all the time. I think that translates on the field because we all play pretty well together. That's been built over the past year, but we got along since the get-go. So I think that's played a pretty big role."

That camaraderie has paid dividends on the field, where six of the Blue Jays' 10 starters are sophomores.

Palmer leads No. 4 Johns Hopkins in assists with 16; Ranagan and midfielder John Greeley rank fourth and fifth in points; Lightner and defenseman Tucker Durkin have combined for 38 ground balls and 13 caused turnoversl and goalkeeper Pierce Bassett ranks third in Division I in goals-against average and fifth in save percentage.

Add midfielder Lee Coppersmith and faceoff specialist Mike Poppleton, and the sophomore class might be one of the most productive second-year groups in school history. And that's not a surprise to their teammates.

"I don't think people within our team are surprised at what these kids have been able to do," senior faceoff specialist Matt Dolente said. "I think after getting to know them and watching them play for a year, we always knew they had the talent, but once you got to know them, you knew they had the drive to win now. I think it would be easy for them to go home and to listen to what everybody told them over the summer about making a run at it and being a great team. I think it's a testament to their character and their work ethic to not accept that and want to win now and really push for the present."

Expectations were high for the sophomores who enrolled as the nation's No. 1 recruiting class (according to Inside Lacrosse). Palmer, Durkin and Lightner (as a long-stick midfielder) were immediately inserted into the starting lineup for last year's season opener against Manhattan, and Greeley, Ranagan and Bassett soon followed.

The Blue Jays made their 39th consecutive appearance in the NCAA tournament, but they were quickly bounced out of the first round by eventual national champion Duke and finished with a 7-8 record — the program's first sub-.500 campaign since 1971.

The disappointment of that season resonated with the soon-to-be sophomores.

"I think being freshmen last year and seeing how last season ended, we kind of got a perspective of what we don't want and what the program is about," Greeley said. "We came into this year as sophomores, but feeling like upperclassmen with the experiences that we had. We knew our roles and knew what we had to do to change the program around."

Added Durkin: "No one came to Hopkins to lose in the first round. I think that added fuel to the fire. We knew that a lot of weight was on our shoulders. So it was time for everyone to step up and assume a different and bigger role this season."

Dolente calls the sophomores "the core" of the program, and they have contributed to the team's 9-2 record and overall resurgence, which includes redeeming victories over Virginia, North Carolina and Maryland — three opponents that beat the Blue Jays last season.

The group's performance would seem to validate the recruiting efforts of the coaching staff, but even coach Dave Pietramala conceded that he did not anticipate their production this quickly.

"Recruiting is not an exact science," he said. "… You hope that your evaluation of them athletically is on par, and this is a class that, when we recruited it, addressed a lot of our needs. We felt like it was a class that had a chance to contribute early on in their career, and obviously, they've done that."

There's some question as to whether Johns Hopkins is too young to seriously contend for an NCAA title, but CBS Sports Network analyst and former Syracuse All-American defenseman Steve Panarelli said being young isn't a liability.

"Sometimes when you're young and you get into those moments, you don't even realize what you're doing and you just go with it and play well," he said. "Sometimes when you're older, you begin to think, 'This is my last opportunity, my last chance,' and there's a little more pressure. I think those guys go into games with a lot of confidence, they feel good about what they're doing, and I don't think they even realize what's going on. They're just going to play and do what they do."

Time will tell if this class can mirror the accomplishments of the Class of 2007 that graduated with two national championships. Dolente said the seniors feel confident about leaving the program in the hands of the sophomores.

"They're a great group of really talented players but they're also a group of really good people," Dolente said. "They're a group of guys that likes to really work hard, and that's motivated to win and make an impact on Hopkins lacrosse. So I think when my class leaves, we'll feel very confident that the program is headed in the right direction and has a group of guys that is committed to winning and winning the Hopkins way."

edward.lee@baltsun.com

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