Petro, a retro Blue Jay


Dave Pietramala has stomped back into town, seeking to restore the luster of his alma mater's lacrosse program while bringing with him a chunk of history.

A storied player in the sport, Pietramala accepted the head coaching job at Johns Hopkins a month ago and seems intent on putting a little grit into the Blue Jays.

Hopkins alumni must think back more than a decade to recall the school's last national championship, but Pietramala has a solid reminder of the program's glory days.

As a sophomore defenseman in 1987, he saved a 2-inch circular tuft of grass from Rutgers Stadium, his only keepsake from the day the Blue Jays celebrated their NCAA-record seventh and last title. He put the brown clump of sod in a glass to display in his house.

That's Petro, a man as uncomplicated as his nickname.

He's still the straight-talking guy who grew up in the middle-class Long Island town of Hicksville, N.Y. He's still the same defenseman who redefined the position by relishing bone-crunching body checks as much as game-saving takeaways. He's still the fiery leader who relies on his tenacious approach to achieve what he wants.

It's an in-your-face style that sometimes can be misunderstood, especially because the bellowing voice resonates from a man who stands 6 feet 4.

Pietramala will scream when correcting mistakes. He'll scream when congratulating his team. He's been known to test his players by running practices like a boot camp. He's been known to test his players by simply running them.

In three years at Cornell, his authoritative demeanor scared away enough players to field another team and turned off some recruits.

Pietramala, though, came up with a core of committed players that elevated the once-struggling Big Red into the top 10 while helping him become last season's Coach of the Year in Division I.

Last week, Pietramala started his search for his first recruiting class at Hopkins, watching nearly 400 high school players from the sideline at the Top 205 camp at Loyola College.

Wearing a gray Blue Jays T-shirt, he dissected the action and scribbled on his clipboard when a player hustled after a ground ball while tired, made an unselfish pass, or high-fived a teammate after he scored.

He usually contacts recruits weekly on the phone and hand-writes lengthy letters. However, since the recruiting season opened July 1 - less than a month after he was hired at Hopkins - Pietramala has been working on the fly this summer. He sent out typed letters.

These thoughtful touches contrast the intense persona of Pietramala on the field.

"What you see is what you get. I'm not a complicated guy," said Pietramala, 32, a 1990 Hopkins graduate. "Maybe I'm a simpleton. I think if people take time to know me that they'll find I am a person that cares a great deal. I'm just a very competitive person who hates to lose.

"I am a very emotional person. I'm not a quiet person on the practice field or when I'm with my close friends. That's me. If I don't act the way I am, our guys are going to see right through that and think I am full of baloney."

Those players who persevered admit to seeing the reasoning behind the ranting.

"He evolved into a player's coach," said Bob Werhane, a two-year starting senior defenseman at Cornell and a St. Paul's School graduate. "But his intensity never [wavered]. I would not be playing lacrosse if it were not for him."

Said Cornell coach Jeff Tambroni, who was an assistant under Pietramala for the past three seasons: "Maybe 'tough love' would be a good term. ... You have to know the man to love the man. He asked our guys to understand not how he's saying it, but what he's saying."

'I wasn't very good'

Pietramala is revered as one of the most feared players in the game. But here's a scarier notion: He came close to never picking up a lacrosse stick.

Although raised on Long Island, one of the sport's hotbeds, Pietramala wasn't exposed to lacrosse until he got to high school. His father, who worked as the director of purchasing at St. John's University in New York City, favored watching baseball in the spring.

After Pietramala played JV basketball for St. Mary's High, coach John Espey suggested that he come out in the spring for lacrosse, which Espey also coached.

Pietramala wasn't exactly a natural.

"I wasn't very good," Pietramala said. "I spent most of my time playing crease midfielder trying to screen the goalie. I got hit by more shots than anything else."

Although he continued playing basketball, Pietramala shifted his focus to improving in lacrosse.

By his senior year, Pietramala was one of New York's best and was a part of the first Empire State Games, an all-star event for the top players in the state.

He was recruited by Maryland, Syracuse, and Loyola before then-Hopkins coach Don Zimmerman and assistant Bill Tierney lured him to Homewood with the unparalleled success of the program.

"Nobody made me any promises other than I would graduate," said Pietramala, who earned a bachelor of arts degree in social and behavioral sciences. "They said they would help me to be the best player I could be and that I could have a chance to compete for a national championship. I think all of those [things] came true."

Changing the game

Pietramala didn't just play the game. He changed it.

Whether it was stripping the ball away or directing traffic on a fast break, he became the first long-stick defenseman to dictate the flow of a game - a defenseman who was exciting to watch, intimidating to face.

He was an athlete, showcasing skill with great stickwork and his ability to carry the ball.

He was a technician, shutting down the opposition's top scorer each week.

He was a warrior, causing some of the most memorable collisions for a loose ball.

"Dave is one of the very few defensemen that coaches made a game plan around," said Hopkins defensive coordinator Brian Voelker, who played with Pietramala for two years.

The two-time Defenseman of the Year affected Hopkins' 1988 game against Maryland with just one hit in the first half.

Timing the Terrapins' Doug Poindexter's leap for an over-the-head clearing pass, Pietramala rammed Poindexter as soon as he hit the ground, separating the Maryland senior's shoulder and ending his season.

After the game, some Terrapins acknowledged that image made them wary of Pietramala's whereabouts the rest of the game.

"It shook us up, and that usually doesn't happen in our sport," Maryland coach Dick Edell said after Hopkins' 11-7 victory.

Great players don't necessarily make great coaches. In fact, great players usually don't make great coaches.

In the 29 years of the NCAA men's lacrosse Division I tournament, no coach has ever won a championship after capturing one as a player.

Still, Pietramala already has set one standard, becoming the first to win both Coach and Player of the Year awards.

Learning to coach

He has separated himself from his playing days, allowing his father to keep his awards and not suiting up for a club or indoor lacrosse game in six years.

Nowadays, his free time is spent playing pickup basketball games with fellow coaches or savoring quiet time with Colleen, his wife of 11 months. He doesn't care about carrying a few more pounds than he did during his playing days and works off his nervous energy by cleaning the house.

Pietramala has shown patience to learn coaching, gradually climbing the ranks as an assistant under Hopkins' Tony Seaman and Loyola's Dave Cottle before moving on in 1997 to rebuild the Cornell program.

After an overflow turnout of 65 players at his first meeting, Pietramala decided to weed out the roster by having 6 a.m. weightlifting sessions and early practices in the fall. The players found themselves working out earlier than the members of Cornell's Reserve Officers' Training Corps.

By the end of fall ball, more than half the players had quit, including a starting defenseman from the previous year.

He's the epitome of hands-on coaching, tossing a ball around for an hour with players who need extra practice.

When a player has a class that conflicts with an important film scouting session, he'll be excused from practice but not from a workout. He has to return later that day to the field, where he'll find Pietramala, a former Division I Player of the Year, suited up and ready to go one-on-one.

Cornell, which had suffered back-to-back 3-11 seasons before Pietramala's arrival, responded to his work ethic by finishing 10-4 this year for its best record since 1987. The Big Red was also the only team to beat eventual national champion Syracuse this season.

"Teams will very often take the personality of [their] coach," Syracuse coach John Desko said. "Cornell sure did."

Return to Hopkins

Pietramala wanted to return home.

When John Haus left Hopkins for North Carolina, Pietramala was named the Blue Jays' coach less than a week later, agreeing to an offer that he had replayed in his mind for nearly a decade.

"It was a difficult decision for Dave Pietramala, the person, because of the relationships he had with the Cornell players," Tambroni said. "I think it was an easy decision for Dave Pietramala, the coach. He's always dreamed of this. You couldn't take Hopkins out of his heart."

Pietramala is the first Hopkins graduate to coach here since Zimmerman (1984-90), the last coach to guide the Blue Jays to a national title and championship game.

Just like Zimmerman in his first year, Pietramala picked a staff of all Hopkins graduates. His assistants are defensive coordinator Voelker and offensive coordinator Seth Tierney.

For Pietramala, it's about regaining that Hopkins tradition and perhaps one day adding a chunk of history.

"There is no question for me [that] when I got into coaching, I knew eventually, when the time was right, this was the job I wanted," Pietramala said. "For me, it's a dream come true."

Pietramala file

Age: 32

Hometown: Hicksville, N.Y.

High school: St. Mary's (Manhasset, N.Y.)

College: Johns Hopkins

Coaching honors: Named Division I Coach of Year last season. Was 23-17 in three years at Cornell.

Playing honors: One of 19 players in Hopkins history to be named first-team All-American three times (1987-89). ... Was Defenseman of the Year twice (1988-89). ... Was Division I Player of the Year (1989). ... Named world championships MVP (1990).

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