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Division I men's lacrosse preview: Johns Hopkins Blue Jays

Wednesday's entry is the third of a series taking a look at each of the seven Division I programs in the state, in order of finish from last season. The Sun's men's lacrosse preview is scheduled to be published on Friday, Feb. 3. Tuesday's visit was with UMBC. This is Johns Hopkins' turn.

Overview: Among the Blue Jays' eight victories in 2016 were wins against three eventual NCAA tournament participants in Navy, Towson, and Syracuse that helped earn a spot in the postseason. But the year ended with losses to Maryland in the regular-season finale, Rutgers in the Big Ten tournament semifinals, and Brown in the NCAA tournament first round. The swift and sudden slide has been a point of irritation for a program that advanced to the NCAA Final Four in 2015.

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Reason for optimism: The graduation of a combined 61 goals from attackman Ryan Brown and midfielder Holden Cattoni could be allayed by arguably the deepest midfield in Division I.

John Crawley (17 goals and nine assists) and Cody Radziewicz (13 G, 9 A) are back for their senior years, as are junior Patrick Fraser (9 G, 2 A), senior Kieran Eissler (3 G, 4 A), and junior Brinton Valis (3 G, 3 A). And the unit welcomes back junior Joel Tinney (28 G, 10 A in 2015) from an NCAA suspension, fifth-year senior Connor Reed (10 G, 15 A in 2015) from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, sophomore Drew Supinski (8 G, 4 A in 2016) from a knee injury, and sophomore Alex Concannon from another knee ailment.

Coach Dave Pietramala is optimistic that the return of some important playmakers will will help fuel an offense that ranked 12th in the nation in scoring at 12.3 goals per game last spring.

"What we found last year was guys were forced into different roles and certainly greater roles," he said. "While I thought they did an admirable job and a good job, at the end of the year, you could see that we had lost a lot of our athleticism. When you look at Connor, you look at Joel and you look at Drew, those are three of our better athletes at the midfield. Those are three guys that can break you down and run by you and draw a slide. It's nice to have that back."

Reason for pessimism: The defense returns a pair of stout close defensemen in senior Nick Fields (35 ground balls and nine caused turnovers) and sophomore Patrick Foley (23 GB, 11 CT), but can the unit turn back a disconcerting trend?

Last season, opponents averaged 11.6 goals against Johns Hopkins – an increase from 10.5 in 2015 and 8.9 in 2014. Junior Austin Spencer (28 GB, 7 CT) will move from close defense to long-stick midfield to join sophomore Robert Kuhn (26 GB, 8 CT) at that position, and junior Brock Turnbaugh (11.51 goals-against average and .471 save percentage) and graduate student Gerald Logan (12.51 goals-against average, .509 save percentage at Michigan) are battling for the right to start in the net.

The defensive struggles don't sit well with Pietramala, a three-time first-team All-American defenseman when he played for the Blue Jays from 1987-90.

"That's an area where we need to be better," he said. "We need to be better in the defensive end. I would tell you that I have seen a greater commitment to it, I have seen a greater urgency, and I've seen a much more detail-oriented group since the end of last year at that end of the field."

Keep an eye on: The offense bade farewell to Brown, who graduated in sole possession of second place in program history in career goals (159) and hat tricks (27).

Sophomore Kyle Marr, who registered 13 goals and three assists in his rookie campaign, will get the first crack at joining junior Shack Stanwick (20 G, 38 A) and senior Wilkins Dismuke (24 G, 3 A) as starters on attack. But sophomore Jake Fox and freshman Forry Smith are also in play as they bring a right-handed presence that Brown had occupied.

"You're talking about three lefties," Pietramala said of the possible starting trio of Stanwick, Dismuke, and Marr. "It's not just about who are the best players, it's what are the right combinations and what's going to allow us the best opportunity to run our offense. … There's nothing saying that you can't play offense with three lefties. You can, and we have in practice. But you've just got to determine what is the best way to do it."

What he said: The return of the aforementioned midfielders and the graduation of only two starters have raised the level of anticipation around the Blue Jays, who have been to one NCAA tournament semifinal since 2008. Pietramala is not immune to sensing a buildup among players, fans, and media, but he also knows there's no point in validating that feeling before the season has even begun. His biggest hope is that the players take it upon themselves to use the 17-8 loss at Brown in the NCAA first round as motivation.

"I think there's an anxiety, and I hope there's an urgency after last year," Pietramala said. "It's great that people are excited about our team. But my concern is that there has to be more of a sense of urgency from our team to do the things that we need to do this year. And are we prepared to learn from the lessons that we were taught last year to get better and not have the same outcome? We are not interested in the same outcome at all, and that has been talked about in terms of what happened at the end of last year."

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