Johns Hopkins vs. Maryland

Johns Hopkins celebrates after beating Maryland at Byrd Stadium. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun / April 13, 2013)

Monday’s entry is the third of a series taking a look at each of the seven Division I programs in this state according to their order of finish from last season. The Sun’s lacrosse preview is scheduled to be published on Friday, Feb. 7. This is Johns Hopkins’ turn.

Overview: If parity needed a face in 2013, it may have found one in the Blue Jays, who were left out of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1971 in favor of programs like Loyola, Penn State and Yale. It didn’t matter that the team had a 9-5 record that was markedly better than the 7-7 mark that the 2010 squad had when it earned an at-large bid that year. The competition for the nine at-large bids in the next NCAA tournament continues to be fierce, and the onus is on Johns Hopkins to prove that it can start a new streak of postseason appearances.

Reason for optimism: The graduation of two-time Defenseman of the Year Tucker Durkin and steady Chris Lightner would usually raise a red flag about the defense. But coach Dave Pietramala has long insisted that the unit’s success is based on the interchangeable players that can execute the defense’s schemes.

Senior Jack Reilly (14 ground balls and 13 caused turnovers) will anchor the close defense with juniors Robert Enright (6 GB, 1 CT) and John Kelly (4 GB, 2 CT) assisting. Senior goalkeeper Eric Schneider (9.59 goals-against average and .500 save percentage) is poised to succeed Pierce Bassett (7.59 GAA, .604 save percentage).

The defensive midfield returns junior Michael Pellegrino (38 GB, 15 CT) at long-stick, and senior James Malm (7 GB, 1 CT) could be paired with freshman Joey Carlini or sophomores Kelton Black or Derrick Kihembo at short-stick.

Pietramala is cautiously optimistic about the defense’s potential.

“On paper, this team has a lot to prove, and there are others that will need to step into roles for the team and do a good job of it,” he said. “But do I think that could be a strength of ours? I do.”

Reason for pessimism: As 2013 unfolded, attackman Zach Palmer (12 goals and 13 assists) did not appear to be dodging with the same aggressiveness that he had displayed en route to leading the 2012 squad in assists (26) and points (53). Lapses in accuracy blunted midfielders John Ranagan and John Greeley’s power drives down the alleys.

That left the offense with few options outside of attackman Wells Stanwick to test opposing defenses. Stanwick (24, 23) is back, but no other player finished with more than four assists last spring. If the Blue Jays can’t unearth more playmakers, opponents may employ an anybody-but-Stanwick approach to defending.

“I think one of things we have to do is force teams to defend six guys,” Pietramala said. “Based off our personnel last year and some of the things we did, if you picked two or three guys and stopped those guys, it was less of a challenge to be successful for our opponent. We’ve got to be a team that forces a team to play against six players.”

Keep an eye on: Johns Hopkins graduated six starters and three major contributors. But the depth is there for the team to reload.

Sophomore attackmen Ryan Brown (17, 4) could switch from midfield to join Stanwick and senior Brandon Benn (34, 1) on attack. Senior Rob Guida (3, 4) could be joined by senior Rex Sanders (13, 0) and sophomore Holden Cattoni (6, 3) on the first midfield, and the defense has already been discussed.

But with 17 freshmen and 12 sophomores on the roster and injuries and illness almost a given in this age of athletics, youth and inexperience could make it way to the field sooner than Pietramala’s liking. And he understands that he will have to give the players a little more leeway to take risks and commit errors.

“I felt like last year, when we were under duress or there were challenging situations, we tightened up and thought about not losing rather than just playing,” he said. “So when you allow them to make a few mistakes, they can move on from them more quickly. Now that doesn’t mean you throw it all over America. But we have taken that attitude with these guys. We understand that they’re going to make a few more mistakes, and we need to be a little bit more patient with them and allow them to grow, and as we do that, the confidence will continue to grow.”

What he said: With the Blue Jays trying to bounce back from the disappointment of 2013 with a younger, less experienced group, one might expect Pietramala to ease off the pedal in terms of expectations.

But that hasn’t been the approach for a program that is second only to Syracuse in number of national championships with nine. Or Pietramala.

“The goal and the standard at Johns Hopkins is to make the NCAA playoffs, be successful in the NCAA playoffs, earn a berth in the Final Four and compete for a national championship,” he said. “Our goals haven’t changed there. Our approach may change, the people that are doing it may change, but the standard here hasn’t changed and won’t change.”