FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - Sometimes disappointment is best expressed with something other than words. Sometimes faces do a far better job of telling the story.
To look at the faces of the Johns Hopkins lacrosse team yesterday was to understand just how hollow and heartbreaking it is to come up short in a quest to win a championship.
The Blue Jays were hoping to finish off a wild season with a defining victory in the NCAA championship game, but instead it was the Syracuse Orange, the Blue Jays' longtime rival, who left Gillette Stadium with the look of the exalted.
Despite six goals from Hopkins senior All-American Paul Rabil, Syracuse defeated the Blue Jays, 13-10, in front of 48,970, a record crowd for an outdoor NCAA championship.
The title was Syracuse's ninth NCAA title in men's lacrosse, tying the Orange with Johns Hopkins. (Another Syracuse title, from 1990, was vacated by the NCAA because of rules violations.) It also gave the Orange bragging rights over the Blue Jays, at least for now. For the past half-century, the two schools have clashed on the field as though they were the Athens and Sparta of the lacrosse universe.
And though this year's graduating seniors at Hopkins finished their careers with two national championships (2005 and 2007) and the best postseason record of any senior class in collegiate history (12-2), it was disheartening to walk off the field for the final time without a victory.
At one point this season, Johns Hopkins was 3-5, had lost five in a row and was in danger of missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1971. The Blue Jays, however, won their next eight and did not lose another game until yesterday, a remarkable turnaround.
"I am extremely proud of the team I had the privilege of coaching this year," said Johns Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala, who took a deep breath and rubbed his face several times with his large hands before speaking. "We went through some pretty tough bumps in the road, and to rally back and get here, to overcome, speaks volumes of this team. The team that played better won the championship today."
Hopkins kept it close in the first half thanks to some great saves by sophomore goalie Michael Gvozden, but in the end, the Blue Jays simply couldn't match up with Syracuse's offensive pressure. Dan Hardy scored three times, and three other players had two goals for the Orange. Mike Leveille was named the NCAA tournament's Most Outstanding Player despite being held to just one goal and two assists.
If not for Rabil, whose six goals were the second most ever in a championship game, the Orange might have turned the game into a blowout.
Even near the end, with victory almost impossible, Rabil showed that his name deserves to be in the conversation whenever people debate the best midfielders in school history. During one sequence, he fought through three defenders, lost the ball, then stole it back through sheer determination, spun back toward the goal and fired it past Syracuse goalie John Galloway.
In the postgame news conference, with his eye black smeared down his cheeks and his voice choking back emotion, he looked a broken superhero.
"This is the most special thing I have ever been a part of in my entire life," Rabil said when asked how he will remember his time at Johns Hopkins. "I told the guys that in the huddle after the game. What we've experienced, what we've been through all these years. You build such strong relationships, and they are everywhere."
As Rabil left the news conference, he paused for second, then put his hand on Pietramala's shoulder and gave it a squeeze.
"If I learned one thing overall this year, I learned that the character of the young men who play at Johns Hopkins is pretty spectacular," Pietramala said.
There was one quiet Memorial Day moment yesterday inside the Blue Jays locker room that helped put the concept of loss - in lacrosse and in life - into perspective.
As the players finished showering and began packing their gear, Ryan C. Major, a 2003 Towson graduate, maneuvered his wheelchair into the middle of the crowded room and asked for a chance to address the team. Major, a high school classmate and friend of former Blue Jays player Andy Posil, was a specialist and squad leader in the U.S. Army, and was serving in Iraq in 2004 when he lost both of his legs and many of his fingers to an improvised explosive device.
The Blue Jays, at Posil's urging, welcomed him as one of their own this year. They asked him to wear a Hopkins jersey, No. 21, on the sideline. They named him an honorary captain for a game. Major even traveled with Hopkins on road trips late in the season, staying in the team hotel and eating pre-game meals with the squad.
Half-dressed, their eyes still red with disappointment, every Blue Jays player stood in silence and listened as Major spoke.
"I was so excited to see you guys out there playing today," Major said, his voice soft but firm. "It's been a long time since I've felt like I was a part of something important, part of a team. All I can say is thank you. Thank you for making me feel like I was a part of a family again."
More coverage of the NCAA lacrosse title game. Pgs 3-5z