No. 17 Johns Hopkins has won all six meetings with Penn State, including an 11-10 double overtime decision on April 11. This will be the first neutral site for both sides, but the Nittany Lions are just 1-7 on the road, while the Blue Jays are 2-4 away from Homewood Field in Baltimore.
Penn State (5-8 overall and 2-3 in the Big Ten), the No. 4 seed in the conference tournament, defeated Rutgers and Michigan to qualify for the tournament, marking the program's first winning streak of the season. One of the team's standouts this season has been redshirt sophomore faceoff specialist Drake Kreinz. He ranks 19th in Division I in faceoff percentage at 55.0 percent (116-of-211) and leads the Nittany Lions in ground balls with 54.
Johns Hopkins (7-6, 4-1), the No. 1 seed, is also riding its first winning streak of the year after winning three in a row. Senior attackman Wells Stanwick (Boys' Latin) has scored at least one point in his last 32 contests, which is one game longer than the previous Blue Jays record set by Kyle Barrie between March 22, 2002 and March 20, 2004. Stanwick, a first-team Big Ten selection, is ranked eighth in the nation in assists per game at 2.4.
Here are a few factors that could play a role in the outcome of a Big Ten tournament semifinal at Byrd Stadium in College Park on Thursday at 5:30 p.m.
1) Penn State's offense vs. Johns Hopkins' defense. In that regular-season meeting, the Nittany Lions shifted sophomore Nick Aponte from midfield to attack and sophomore Dan Craig from attack to midfield, and the moves worked. Aponte finished with one goal and three assists, and his ability to dodge beneath the goal line opened opportunities for senior midfielder Pat Manley (four goals) and sophomore attackman Mike Sutton (three goals). Aponte has remained at the attack, and the offense has scored 21 goals in those victories against Rutgers and Michigan.
"With Aponte at the attack now, it's allowed [junior attackman T.J.] Sanders to do a little less carrying and more off-ball stuff," Blue Jays coach Dave Pietramala noted. "It's allowed them to have more of a facilitator there, which makes it challenging because now if the middies are initiating a lot of the offense and the ball is going through X behind [the net], it's getting distributed more quickly and more effectively than maybe it was earlier in the season. … I think they do present greater challenges now than they did earlier in the season."
2) Johns Hopkins' shooters vs. Penn State's Connor Darcey. Darcey, the redshirt sophomore, demonstrated why he was a goalkeeper the Blue Jays recruited. Darcey made a game-high 13 saves in that loss to Johns Hopkins, including two in each of the overtime sessions. He stoned Stanwick on a curl around the right post in the first extra period and Stanwick again from the left side of the crease. Pietramala marveled at Darcey's ability to made game-changing stops.
"No offense, but he's a thief," Pietramala said. "He steals a few. I'm watching him on film, and he steals a bunch every game. When you've got that and you've got what they've got at the faceoff X in Kreinze, that makes it more challenging going into a game and knowing they can win the possession battle due to faceoffs and goalie play."
3) Penn State's pressure vs. Johns Hopkins' ball security. The Blue Jays rank 10th in the country in scoring at 12.4 goals per game partially because the offense has been very good at taking care of the ball. The team has committed an average of 12.2 turnovers, which ranks as the ninth-best mark in Division I. Since giving the ball away 20 times in a 16-15 overtime loss against Virginia on March 21, Johns Hopkins has turned the ball over an average of 10.8 times in its last five contests. But Pietramala said the team's ability to protect the ball will be tested by the Nittany Lions.
"One of the challenges this week is this is a team that causes turnovers," he said. "This is a team that plays aggressively on the perimeter, a team that gets after the loose balls and is rather athletic defensively. I think their attackmen ride very, very hard. They create turnovers. So it's important not to turn the ball over unnecessarily, and that's been an area of focus for us since the start of the fall."