Here is the fourth installment of a series that checks in with the seven Division I programs in the state to give a glimpse into the past and the future. Teams are scheduled to appear according to the chronological order in which their seasons ended. Wednesday's visit was with UMBC. Thursday's visit is with Johns Hopkins, which finished with an 8-7 overall record and a 3-2 mark in the Big Ten.
The good: The Blue Jays ended 2017 in a swoon (more on that later), but the year began with much excitement. Their 4-0 start included a 15-8 rout of a Navy team that had advanced to the 2016 NCAA tournament quarterfinals, secured a 14-13 overtime decision over a Loyola Maryland squad that went to the Final Four the year before, and cruised to a 13-5 victory at reigning national champion North Carolina for the first time in Chapel Hill, N.C., since 2005. The opening confirmed what coach Dave Pietramala saw in the fall and winter workouts.
"We felt like it was a very good fall for us, and we felt like we made good progress and got good leadership," he said. "… So from the start of the fall through the Carolina game, we felt like things were really moving in a positive fashion. The way we were playing and the way we were improving and the toughness we showed to go on the road to Carolina to win that game, those were all positive things."
>>One area that befuddled the 2016 squad was clearing where the team succeeded 84.3 percent of the time to rank 49th in Division I. After spending the offseason targeting that aspect as one that had to improve, Johns Hopkins cleared the ball at 89.6 percent to rank ninth. The higher clearing rate helped the squad turn the ball over only 10.7 times per game, which was the second-lowest average in the country and delighted Pietramala.
"I thought we found a happy medium between playing and putting a value on the ball, and I think part of that comes from the clearing game," he said. "We were averaging a couple turnovers per game the year before in the clearing game – whether it was poor stickwork or poor decision-making. That was hurting us. So I was very pleased with the amount of turnovers that we had."
>>Sophomore attackman Kyle Marr earned honorable-mention All-American status, but his development was startling. After scoring 16 points on 13 goals and three assists in his debut year, Marr erupted for 45 points on 25 goals and 20 assists – all of which ranked second on offense to only junior attackman Shack Stanwick. Marr enjoyed 12 points on 11 goals and one assist in back-to-back wins against Virginia and Rutgers on March 25 and 31, respectively, and then added nine points on three goals and six assists in a thumping of Michigan on April 22.
"Kyle Marr took a step," Pietramala said. "I thought he did a good job. He got very hot for a while. I think at one point, he couldn't miss the goal, and that was hugely important in that time period. … I did think Kyle Marr grew his game and his productivity from the year prior."
The bad: For the second consecutive year, the Blue Jays' 8-7 overall record and 3-2 Big Ten mark was exacerbated by a three-game losing skid that sent them into the offseason. They wrapped up the regular season with a 12-5 loss at eventual NCAA titlist Maryland, got bounced from the league tournament semifinals via a 15-13 setback to Ohio State, and absorbed a 19-6 shellacking by Duke in the first round of the NCAA postseason. The ending made the four-game winning streak to start a distant memory.
"It's very disappointing, and as much as we're disappointed about it, it's more important that we address it," Pietramala said. "Each year when things don't go your way, you say you're going to do that. After the Brown game [in the 2016 NCAA tournament], I looked back at our team and we had lost all of our depth [because of injury]. … However, we didn't have that issue this year, and what we need to do is, we need to carry over that disappointment and turn it into motivation. We have sat and been unbelievably introspective. We have looked at this thing, and we are making changes that we hope and believe will be invaluable."
>>The defense improved from 11.6 goals allowed per game in 2016 to 11.5 this spring, but that was of little consolation to Johns Hopkins. Eight opponents scored at least 12 goals, and graduate student Gerald Logan and junior Brock Turnbaugh started eight and seven games each, respectively, in a goalie carousel. Pietramala, who is in charge of the unit, blamed himself for not adapting the defensive schematics to the personnel.
"I think the place where we need to change the most is on the defensive end, and I think we need to stop trying to fit a square peg in a round hole," he said. "We need to adjust and do some things that I believe are more conducive to allowing our personnel to be successful. We've got to be bigger, stronger, more athletic at the short-stick defensive midfield position. So there are personnel things that we need to address, and we will."
>>Sophomore midfielder Alex Concannon returned from a season-ending knee injury in 2016 to have three goals and nine assists as a member of the second line, but the recovery was much slower for graduate student Connor Reed (torn anterior cruciate ligament) and sophomore Drew Supinski (knee). Reed, who hit career highs in goals (10) and assists (16) in 2015, did not finish with a point in 12 games, including two starts this past spring. Supinski, who had eight goals and four assists in eight starts a year ago, also failed to notch a point in eight appearances, including one start. Pietramala said he wished Reed and Supinski could have regained their past form.
"I think in this case, it was more mental," he said. "You've got to come back in great shape, but it takes time, and different guys progress at different speeds. I look at Alex, and Alex came back differently. Injuries are a part of the game, and we just have to deal with them."
Personnel changes: Graduation relieved the offense of three starters in midfielders John Crawley (20 goals and four assists) and Cody Radziewicz (13 G, 5 A) and attackman Wilkins Dismuke (14 G, 4 A). The immediate thinking is that freshmen Forry Smith (14 G, 6 A) and Cole Williams (6 G, 4 A) will compete to join Stanwick (26 G, 21 A) and Marr on attack, and junior Patrick Fraser (12 G, 1 A), Concannon and junior Brinton Valis (2 G) will be in the pool of candidates eager to run in the first midfield with junior Joel Tinney (19 G, 9 A). Pietramala said the onus is on the coaches to figure out who fits where.
"I think at the end of the day, we've got to do a great job of finding where the pieces of the puzzle go," he said. "This is a big summer in terms of development for a couple guys. For Cole Williams and Forry Smith, this is a huge summer of development for those two guys. Can Kyle Marr take that next step? Can Joel Tinney become the leader that John Crawley was? Those things are important, but in the end, how we play is going to be important."
>>Nick Fields (23 ground balls and 19 caused turnovers), a third-team All American, and Trevor Koelsch (12 GB, 11 CT) are gone as starting defensemen and will be missed. But freshman Owen Colwell (8 GB, 3 CT) is poised to join freshman Jack Rapine (29 GB, 17 CT) as starters, and the potential return of sophomore Patrick Foley (23 GB, 11 CT in 2016 as a starter) gives Pietramala some level of comfort that the close defense may not be as depleted as the offense.
"Owen played some reserve duty and got a start when Trevor Koelsch was hurt," he said. "We went with the senior, but Owen has now gotten a year under his belt, and he performed solidly. He did a good job in the Ohio State game when he got into the fourth quarter when we made a change. Jack Rapine had a good, solid freshman year. We asked an awful lot of a kid to replace someone who we thought could be an All American in Pat Foley. So I feel like the parts are there."
>>The defensive midfield also lost a pair of starters in long-stick midfielder Austin Spencer (24 GB, 5 CT, 1 G, 1 A) and short-stick defensive midfielder Joe Carlini (5 GB, 3 CT, 8 A). Sophomore Robert Kuhn (26 GB, 6 CT, 6 G, 3 A) figures to be the full-time starting long-pole, while junior Tal Bruno (8 GB, 6 CT) and sophomore Daniel Jones (6 GB, 2 CT) will likely start at short-stick. The underlying theme for the Rope unit and the rest of the defense is a renewed intent to pack on more muscle to play in the physical Big Ten.
"Our guys have left with the mandate that we are going to get better, we are going to get stronger, and we are going to get physical," Pietramala said. "Look at Ohio State from how they changed from two years ago when they were a team that didn't make the NCAA playoffs. Those kids were all there, but now they're all bigger and stronger. They were more physical this year, and that's the league we're in."
Forecast for 2018: Cloudy. Offense has lately become the calling card of the Blue Jays, and that unit will be leaned on to be the spark again next year. Stanwick (Boys' Latin) will continue to be the quarterback, and there's enough depth on that side to suggest that this year's No. 16 ranking at 11.6 goals per game may improve. The biggest question mark is on defense. The toll that graduation took is deep, but that unit struggled even with that group and Fields, a shutdown defender. The defensive midfield must tighten up, and Turnbaugh (12.59 goals-against average and .408 save percentage) has an opportunity to lock himself up as the full-time starter in the cage. Back-to-back first-round exits from the NCAA tournament don't sit well with the program, and the mountain to climb back into contention seems steeper than ever before.