Dave Pietramala's reputation for being cautious and methodical precedes him as he takes to the recruiting trail every summer. The Johns Hopkins coach cast that aside when it came to wooing Zach Palmer.
In 2008, Pietramala received an email from former Georgetown standout Brodie Merrill, the coach at The Hill Academy, a prep school in Ontario, Canada. Embedded in the email was a four-minute video clip of a small, fast attackman who dodged, dippedand dazzled against his opponents.
Based on that video, Pietramala agreed to offer Palmer, an Ontario native who was considering Princeton and Georgetown at that time, a scholarship — without having watched him in person.
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"We really hadn't gotten to know him that well, and yet we're taking a flyer on him, saying, 'We can't wait because he's going to make a decision. So we've got to decide now,'" Pietramala recalled. "And we took him. We still had to fill in the blanks on some things. We thought we knew about his natural ability, but we didn't know how hard he worked or know enough about what kind of kid he was or what kind of character he had or how he handled adversity. These are things you hope you find out in the recruiting process, and we didn't have that. So that coupled with never having had a Canadian before, it was a new process for us. I couldn't tell you if we were really worried because we didn't know what to worry about."
That risky decision paid off handsomely as Palmer has emerged as the top playmaker for the No. 8 Blue Jays (10-3), who welcome No. 20 Army (7-7) to Homewood Field in Baltimore on Saturday in the regular-season finale for both teams.
Palmer leads the team in both assists (21) and points (39) and along with sophomore Brandon Benn, has been a constant on an attack unit that has absorbed injuries to senior Chris Boland (broken collarbone) and freshman Wells Stanwick (right hand).
Reminded of his unusual path to Johns Hopkins, Palmer acknowledged that the program took a leap of faith in offering him a scholarship.
"Yeah, it's a little bit surreal once I think about it," he said. "I guess I really haven't thought about it too much, but I guess it's pretty crazy when you think about it."
Palmer's potential was spotted early by Merrill, the nation's Defensive Player of the Year in 2005. Merrill, who still plays for the Major League Lacrosse's Hamilton Nationals and the National Lacrosse League's Philadelphia Wings, said Palmer reminded him of a certain opponent who is the only player to twice win the Tewaaraton Award, which is presented to the country's top collegiate player.
"He reminded me so much of [Syracuse's four-time All American] Mike Powell in the way that he moved and how aggressive he was," Merrill said. "And he kind of had that pass-first mentality. I had played against Mike Powell in college, and I just saw a lot of similarities in their game. Obviously, Zach has a little bit more of a Canadian feel to it, but I suspected that he would have an early impact."
After a freshman campaign in which he split time between midfield and attack, Palmer blossomed last year, finishing first in assists (25) and second in points (47). He is on par to at least match that production this season.
Listed at 5-foot-8 and 168 pounds, Palmer takes a pounding from opponents' top defensemen, who freely use their stick to batter him. But Boland said Palmer is deceivingly strong and unafraid to attack larger opposition.
"I think this year especially, he's grown into more of a dodging role, and that has to do with some of the injuries we had early in the year with Wells and myself," Boland said. "But he's always been a capable dodger. He's small, but he's very quick and has got a great burst of speed. He's a pretty physical dodger for being so small."
When injuries sidelined Boland and Stanwick, Palmer filled the void on attack, amassing 10 goals and 12 assists during Boland's seven-game absence. But Palmer said he didn't feel much pressure to carry the load on attack.
"We all have certain roles to play, and other guys can step in and play them," he said. "As long as everyone did their job, we were fine in all the games that we didn't have Bo. So it really wasn't a huge deal. I just had to lead a little bit more when I have the ball in my stick. But I didn't mind that and everyone stepped into their roles, and we were fine."
Palmer's continued development could help determine if Johns Hopkins reaches the Final Four on Memorial Day weekend for the first time since 2008. Regardless of the team's final destination, Pietramala said he's been pleased with Palmer's progress.
"We've been thrilled with what he's done," Pietramala said. "He's an outstanding passer. When you think of Canadians, you think of finishers usually, and really, we'd love to see him pull the trigger a little bit more. We want him to be more aggressive because he is a very good dodger when he puts his mind to it. Watching him against [junior defenseman] Tucker Durkin in practice, you can see that. But he's a guy that we'd like to see be more aggressive, and I think he's still learning and growing into that role."