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Jays looked into mirror

The Baltimore Sun

On April 12, the longest losing streak in the history of Johns Hopkins lacrosse ended with the Blue Jays defeating Maryland.

Members of the Blue Jays' coaching staff were relieved not just because it kept their team's NCAA Division I playoff hopes alive, but also because they were running out of ways to keep the team motivated.

"Like Cal Ripken, we kept changing our batting stances," Hopkins assistant coach Bill Dwan said. "As a staff, you keep wondering, 'What can we do to make this better?' There are only so many T-shirts and slogans you can make up. This year should have been on the Hard Knocks series because it's been a pretty crazy season around here."

The Blue Jays (10-5) endured the five-game skid and now find themselves in a familiar setting. No. 5 seed Hopkins will play No. 1 Duke (18-1) on Saturday in the NCAA semifinals at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.

It has been a long, painful ride for Hopkins, whose name is synonymous with lacrosse. At one point this season, the Blue Jays lost three straight overtime games -- to Hofstra, Syracuse and Virginia.

Those games were followed by blowout losses to North Carolina and Duke, and even the most die-hard Hopkins fans were wondering whether the Blue Jays' streak of 35 straight playoff appearances was in jeopardy.

Seven straight

"It was tough because this is such a small campus and lacrosse is a big part of everything," said Hopkins senior attackman Kevin Huntley (Calvert Hall). "You feel a responsibility to the university and the students to do well and entertain them."

Since losing to Duke on April 5, the Blue Jays have won seven straight, including victories over rivals Maryland, Towson, Navy and Loyola.

What turned Hopkins around?

A number of things transpired, but the consensus among the players and the coaches is that the humiliating 13-8 loss to Carolina was the turning point.

"Carolina flat-out kicked our [butts]," Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala said. "You could reason the overtime losses, but you couldn't reason that one. That rarely happens to us, and that's hard for a proud group to accept. Our kids were like, 'Wow, we better get our tails in gear, and get it in gear now.'"

Fear is a great motivator, and there was a sense of urgency at Hopkins, especially among the seniors.

"There is too much tradition in this program, too many people who have sweated for success," senior Eric Zerrlaut said. "No player wanted to be connected with the team that didn't get to the playoffs."

No coach, either.

"You think I want to be that guy?" Pietramala asked. "It motivates me not to be that guy. Sometimes you're driven more by the fear of failure than the excitement of success."

To implement changes, the Hopkins staff had to first scout itself. But before that happened, some of them called coaching buddies for advice. Pietramala spoke with Princeton's Bill Tierney and New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick.

Dwan called old Hopkins teammates Brian Voelker and Seth Tierney, who are head coaches at Pennsylvania and Hofstra, respectively.

"When we lost to Duke, I asked them, 'Are we that bad or was that a mirage?'" Dwan said. "I told Brian to watch a couple of games on TV and tell me if we were really that stupid. We weren't. Even at 3-5, I told Dave I still thought we'd go to the playoffs."

Pietramala made some changes on the field. He replaced Michael Kimmel on the first midfield with Mark Bryan so Kimmel could give the second midfield more firepower.

He started subbing star midfielders Paul Rabil and Steve Peyser to get them more rest. He shortened practices and simplified the game plans. And he made the Blue Jays start doing the little things over again.

'Opening doors'

"He made sure we had clean lockers, made us take our hats off in buildings, made sure we touched the lines during sprints," Huntley said. "We started opening doors for people again because it's the little things, like hustling for a ground ball, that gives you the edge. We had to get that back."

In turn, Pietramala turned part of the team over to his seniors. Pietramala starts off the fiery pre-game speeches, but the last three minutes belong to the players, usually Peyser.

All players and coaches now wear a camouflage-colored military wrist bracelet because the Blue Jays say they are on a mission.

"Mike Doneger and Peyser were sitting in my office one night during the streak, and they said, 'Coach, we're sorry, but we can't stop thinking about it [the losing streak],'" Pietramala said. "'But you just stay with us. We're going to get this thing straightened out.'"

Next up is Duke. The Blue Devils, led by attackman Matt Danowski and midfielder Zack Greer, have the best transition game in college lacrosse and the most experience. They are favored against Hopkins, a team Duke defeated, 17-6, this season.

"There is no pressure on us because we're not supposed to be here," Pietramala said. "We know going into the game where Duke is favored, and they should be by their scores.

"What do we have to lose? We're going to go up there and let it fly. We were right where Duke is right now, back in 2005. It's tough to win when you're supposed to win. They got a lot of pressure on them right now."

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