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North Carolina at Johns Hopkins: Three things to watch

No. 10 Blue Jays are 3-1 at home in 2014, but No. 6 Tar Heels have won six of last seven meetings

By Edward Lee, The Baltimore Sun

10:00 AM EDT, March 29, 2014

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Johns Hopkins has a 24-18 advantage in its series with North Carolina,  but the Tar Heels have won six of the last seven meetings. The Blue Jays, who are 3-1 at home, will play their next three games at Homewood Field.

No. 6 North Carolina (7-2) knocked Maryland from the ranks of the unbeaten with an 11-8 decision on Saturday and has upset No. 1 teams in each of the past three years. The Tar Heels are just one of two teams in Division I ranked in the top five in both scoring and defense -- No. 1 Loyola is the other. Junior attackman Joey Sankey leads the offense in both goals (19) and assists (16), while sophomore goalkeeper Kieran Burke ranks seventh in Division I in both goals-against average (7.55) and save percentage (.581).

No. 10 Johns Hopkins (5-2) has dropped two straight after opening the season with five consecutive wins. The Blue Jays are one of four teams with two players in the top 15 in points per game. Sophomore attackman Ryan Brown and junior attackman Wells Stanwick have averaged 5.0 and 4.4 points, respectively.

Here are a few factors that could play a role in the outcome at Homewood Field in Baltimore on Saturday at 2 p.m.

1) Turnovers. Johns Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala anticipated some growing pains from his young team, but giveaways have plagued the Blue Jays all season. They have turned the ball over at least 11 times in each game, including 18 in Saturday’s 11-10 overtime loss at No. 8 Virginia. Johns Hopkins is averaging 15.3 giveaways so far, and when coupled with the 11.9 turnovers committed by North Carolina, three or four extra mistakes could mean the difference between a win and a loss.

“We have to do a better job in practice of expressing how important it is to take care of the ball, that we not have unforced turnovers,” Pietramala said. “If you look, our last two turnovers in the game were unforced. So we’ve just got to do a better job there. With those turnovers, you’re negating much of the success you have on faceoffs because you’re winning possession of the ball but then you’re giving it back. So while we are doing a very good job at the faceoff X, at both ends of the field, [turnovers] negate the success that you’ve had. We just need to be more cognizant of it in practice, and we need to understand what’s an appropriate risk and what’s not. And then we need to be just more focused because some of the turnovers are just unforced. It’s a matter of focus, it’s a matter of stickwork, and we’ve just got to do a better job there.”

2) Fast start. In five wins, the Blue Jays have outscored opponents 21-10 in the first quarter and 33-19 in the first half. In two losses, they have been outscored 7-5 in the first quarter and 13-10 in the first half. Johns Hopkins tied Virginia in the first quarter but had to rally from a 3-0 hole to do so. Pietramala said he would like to see the players get out of the gate quicker to build an early lead.

“When you gain a lead, you gain confidence and you can play a little differently with a lead,” he said. “Your opponent probably has to play a little differently because you do spend time fighting back when you don’t have that lead. And the energy you expend fighting back can make it more challenging in the end to overcome that lead. So it’s great to play with a lead. It’s very beneficial to do that. But in the last two games, we haven’t done that. That’s why we believe that it’s important that we start better and quicker.”

3) Ground balls. Corralling loose balls can enhance – or damage – an offense’s ability to dictate the pace of a game. The Blue Jays have been very respectable when collecting ground balls, averaging 31.9, which ranks 18th in the nation. But the Tar Heels have been even better, picking up 35.9 ground balls per game, which ranks fourth. Pietramala called North Carolina “the most talented team on paper” that Johns Hopkins has faced thus far.  

“They have as much – if not more – talent than anybody out there,” he said. “For them, it’s a who’s who on their roster. So it’s a challenge when you’re facing athletes like that, and you’re facing a team with depth. … I think the ground balls outside of the faceoffs are probably even more critical. We have to do a better job there and that’s where a team like [Carolina] has been successful because they’re just so athletic. We have to do a better job on the loose balls outside of the faceoff arena.”