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Johns Hopkins lacrosse hoping revamped offense leads to more success this season

Nothing inspires change more than failure.

In what has become a refrain since the end of the men's 2013 lacrosse season, Johns Hopkins' 41-year streak of NCAA tournament appearances was snapped and a program that ranks second only to Syracuse with nine national championships could only watch Duke claim its second NCAA title in four years.

The absence of a postseason convinced head coach Dave Pietramala and offensive coordinator Bobby Benson experiment with changes throughout the team. One adjustment involved turning a midfield-driven offense that stalled in the latter half of the season and was cited as one reason why the team was left out of the tournament into a more diversified unit.

So what did the players — who represent a program proud of its history and tradition — think of the change?

"I'd say we're a lot more open to it, especially because of the way last season went," senior attackman Brandon Benn said.

Thus far, the new-look Blue Jays (2-0) have found the results they've been looking for. The 25 goals the team scored in back-to-back wins against Ohio State and Towson is the most scored since combining for 32 tallies in victories over Mount St. Mary's and UMBC last March.

That may not seem particularly impressive, but Ohio State, the 2013 Eastern College Athletic Conference tournament champion, began the season ranked 13th and Towson, the reigning Colonial Athletic Association tournament titlist, is currently ranked 18th.

Similarly, the 55 shots Johns Hopkins unleashed in a 15-8 rout of Towson on Saturday are just three less than the 58-shot barrage in a 15-6 thumping of Siena on Feb. 8, 2013, but the Tigers are a stronger defensive group than the Saints.

So what's different about the offense? Rather than hand the ball to burly, physically imposing midfielders who would stampede from the top of the box and fire volleys at shrinking goalkeepers, everyone on the offensive side of the field is involved.

Attackmen and midfielders both have ball-carrying and initiating responsibilities. Players with the ball can run defenders off picks or dodge toward the net. Those without the ball keep moving to either open running lanes for teammates or get in position for passes leading to opportunities.

Junior attackman Wells Stanwick appears to be the offense's primary playmaker as he leads the team in both assists (10) and points (12), but every player is expected to create against opposing defenses.

"I would say that you can almost throw anyone in and they can play in the offense because it's not too complicated, and realistically, you've just got to be in the right spots and make the right decisions, and we've got a lot of guys that like to do that," Stanwick said. "So I would say that we're pretty deep in those spots."

The impetus for the changes on offense may have occurred in the most recent offseason, but the seeds were planted a few years ago. Pietramala said he and Benson considered revamping the offense at that time, but realized that they didn't have the personnel to fit such alterations — until this year.

"We do feel that we were a little one-dimensional last year, and it put a lot of pressure on our midfielders in the past," he said. "It was a lot of dodge from up top and if you have a shot, shoot it on the run, which is OK if you have those people. But we feel the makeup of this group is a bit different. … We just felt like it was the right opportunity and the right time to make the change."

The new offense has forced some players out of their comfort zone. Take, for instance, Benn. Regarded as a standstill sharpshooter, Benn was frequently marked by a short-stick defensive midfielder because opponents weren't very concerned about him initiating.

But Benn scored the game-winning goal in Johns Hopkins' 10-9 overtime win against Ohio State on Feb. 9 when he dodged against a short stick and created enough room to fire a shot from the left wing.

"Wells kind of takes that by the head," Benn said of initiating. "[Sophomore attackman Ryan Brown] and I are the second and third dodgers, but when we get our chances, we've been working on it a lot more this year. Me personally, compared to past year, I'm working on dodges and especially when I get a short stick, I want to be able to beat the short stick rather than just working off ball like I used to."

But that doesn't mean that the Blue Jays have abandoned their midfielders. They can dodge from the top of the box as they've always done, and Pietramala cautioned against giving the team too much credit for the changes.

"Everybody needs to take a deep breath here," he said. "We didn't all of a sudden reinvent the wheel and start doing everything completely different. We've put another offense in that is dramatically different from what we've done. … But we don't solely use that."

Pietramala and the players are cautiously optimistic that the offense can continue its development, but they agree that the unit is still progressing.

"We obviously think it could be pretty good, but we're taking it one game at a time," Stanwick said. "We're trying to focus on the little details right now, being in the right spots, being organized, and we think if we can do that and improve every day, we'll see where it takes us from there."

edward.lee@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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