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Exhibition against wheelchair lacrosse team offers Johns Hopkins tiring lesson

School was in session for the Johns Hopkins men's lacrosse team last week.

The Blue Jays, who have captured nine NCAA Division I championships, absorbed an 18-6 thumping, and it wasn't even close. The players were slow and running around in circles, and coach Dave Pietramala said at one point, "It's a beatdown."

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But Johns Hopkins wasn't playing the likes of 2015 national titlist Denver, Syracuse or Maryland. The team was walloped by the Kennedy Krieger Institute's Freestate wheelchair team in a 7-on-7 game inside the Johns Hopkins campus' auxiliary gymnasium at the Newton White Athletic Center.

"It was definitely not even close to fair," said sophomore midfielder Tal Bruno, a Lutherville resident and Boys' Latin graduate. "They were running circles around us. It's really just inspirational to see these guys out here giving it their all and having fun with it."

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Freestate captain Mike Looney had predicted before the game that his team would win 10-7. Afterward, the Arnold resident said he was trying to avoid sounding arrogant.

"I didn't want to be too confident going into the game," Looney said. "I figured we could run the score up, but I didn't want to be too confident. As you were asking that question, I was thinking about saying, 'A lot to a little.' But I was trying to be nice."

The impetus for the idea stemmed from the relationship between Pietramala and Brendan Kelly. Kelly, a former midfielder who played with Pietramala on three Johns Hopkins teams between 1987 and 1989, has worked closely with Freestate and asked his friend to attend a game in Ocean City this past summer.

When Kelly asked Pietramala about arranging an exhibition between Freestate and the Blue Jays, Pietramala jumped on board.

"We think we're tough and we think we have it tough sometimes, and then you watch these guys," Pietramala said. "I watched them this summer and I was amazed. We start to think, 'Ah, I work hard.' But do I really? Do I really work that hard? This is a great perspective for us and a great way to bring awareness to something that we think is pretty important."

Erin Michael, coordinator of adult adaptive sports programs at the International Center for Spinal Cord Injury, said wheelchair athletes don't want to be treated any differently from their able-bodied counterparts.

"There's still that stigma for the general population that someone in a wheelchair has more disability than just a physical disability, with people talking louder to them or people talking slower to them," said Michael, who attended the game with Tom Novotny, director of operations for the center. "This is an opportunity for us to show that wheelchair athletes are just athletes. There's life after injury."

Ryan Beale drove five hours from Richmond, Va., to play in the game. Beale, who was a defenseman at Division III Lynchburg before suffering a broken neck in a car accident in the fall of his junior year, said he considers himself fortunate to return to the sport he loved.

"I'm lucky to even be able to play this sport," he said. "I've regained a lot, but I wasn't going to say no [to playing against Johns Hopkins]."

With each team fielding six players and one goalie, Freestate needed just 10 seconds to win the opening faceoff and get a goal from Looney to take a 1-0 lead. The Blue Jays responded with senior attackman Ryan Brown (Calvert Hall) converting a pass from freshman attackman Jake Fox.

Freestate put the game out of reach with a 14-1 run. Johns Hopkins did string together four consecutive goals, but the contest was called after 90 minutes.

Looney led all scorers with six goals and one assist, Corky Nash of Catonsville added five goals and two assists, and Harsh Thakkar chipped in three goals and four assists. Brown paced the Blue Jays with two goals, and freshman goalie Hunter Sells made a game-high eight saves.

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After the game, Pietramala quipped that he would have 52 wheelchairs awaiting the players at Friday's practice. Brown, a Sykesville resident, said he has a greater appreciation for wheelchair athletes.

"You don't really think about how tough it actually is to play a sport in a wheelchair when you can play on two feet," he said. "Playing in a wheelchair just adds another dynamic because it's harder. If you're trying to catch and throw, you're also trying to move, and it's a lot harder than just running and catching with your hands up high. It's definitely changed my perspective. I give these [players] all the credit in the world for what they're doing. It's pretty amazing."

Looney, who was approached by a dozen players after the game, said they were gracious in defeat and encouraging with their praise.

"They're going to talk about this, probably for the rest of their lives," he predicted. "I think they're going to be great ambassadors for promoting this sport. I know Dave Pietramala really enjoyed this, and he's going to be someone — especially in the lacrosse community — who can talk about this."

Kelly is eager to introduce Freestate to other programs. He has talked with his brother Brian, who is the coach at Division III Goucher, and Brian Voelker, a former Blue Jays teammate who is the coach at Drexel and donated helmets to Freestate.

"They're you, they're me," Kelly said. "Unfortunately, a circumstance happened in their life that robbed them of the ability to walk, and now the wheelchair is their mobility. Their mentality in terms of their competitiveness is as much as these athletes at Hopkins. They want to compete."

Bruno, the sophomore midfielder, said he and his teammates will no longer take practices for granted.

"We're all incredibly fortunate to have our health and be able to play at this top level," he said.

"It's a little bit of a shame to see guys who played the game not be able to play as they once did. But it's definitely inspirational to see that they're still out there and they're still doing what they can — and they're kicking the snot out of us."

edward.lee@baltsun.com

twitter.com/EdwardLeeSun

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