When it was announced that Johns Hopkins lacrosse coach Dave Pietramala would not be coaching against Syracuse on March 19, the news was more than just stunning. It was scary.
For Pietramala to miss a game against rival Syracuse, it had to be a serious situation.
Now we know he had a back infection that required hospitalization and a surgical procedure. So on Saturday, when Pietramala, 49, returned to the sidelines to coach the Blue Jays against Big Ten rival Ohio State after a four-game absence, Hopkins had already won before the opening face-off.
"It's a lot different. I don't think I've had a weirder feeling playing lacrosse than the first game, the Syracuse game where Coach was out," said Hopkins senior midfielder Holden Cattoni. "When he came back, it was right back to our same old routine, the same old vibes on the sideline. I think as players, we gelled into it really quickly and got used to having Coach back on the sideline. It's definitely a different feeling."
Hopkins beat the Buckeyes, 13-12, on Saturday but the game was more about Pietramala's return than wins and losses. His school and his name are synonymous with lacrosse, and his return saves the Blue Jays from going through another agonizing period.
It was January last year when Hopkins freshman lacrosse player Jeremy Huber was found dead in his campus dorm. Authorities later said he died of complications from pneumonia.
There are few things tougher in sports than when a head coach has to tell his players about the death of a teammate or an assistant coach. I've had to do that before, and you never forget the expression on your players' faces. It hurt then and it hurts now. Pietramala led his team though that situation, but his illness created some tense times.
Those moments were erased Saturday.
"When you're missing the big guy, it's obvious. There was something that was there before, a familiarity that was not there on the field, in practice," said junior defenseman Nick Field. "It's great to have the big guy back now."
During his absence, there were some who thought the Blue Jays might relax and play better because Pietramala is such a fierce competitor. He demands as much from his players as he did himself when he was the best defenseman in college lacrosse.
But for those who suggested that, they apparently don't get the big picture. Do you really think that these players didn't know how demanding Pietramala is after 15 years as the Blue Jays head coach?
Everyone knows Pietramala gets a little crazy on the sidelines. In fact, it's entertaining sometimes watching him yell at his players and scream at officials. After a while, teams are identified by their coaches. It would be tough seeing Duke without John Danowski, Loyola without Charley Toomey and Syracuse minus John Desko.
No one is more appreciative of his return to the sidelines than Pietramala, who was serenaded by the pro-Blue Jay crowd Saturday with chants of "Petro, Petro."
"I've got to tell you, I don't think I was ever as nervous as a player once," said Pietramala. ''Playing was easy, it was fun. I'm always nervous as a coach, but it was a different nervous. It was, you've got to make the right call. Did you prepare them well enough? … Given the limited time, did we prepare them well enough? Did we go over those things enough? Did I miss anything because I wasn't here 7 [a.m.] to 10 [p.m]? That's what these guys deserve.
"The last thing I want to do in an important game is be the reason they get short-changed," he said.
That's vintage Pietramala. He'd prefer to talk more about his team than himself, but it was fun seeing him on the sideline wearing the typical baseball cap. He wasn't stalking the sideline, but using a motor scooter instead.
The original plan was to have him come back next week, but he came back a week earlier. That's vintage Pietramala, too.
"[Dr. Justin Tortolani] gave me the OK, and it was a very odd feeling," Pietramala said of returning to coaching. "The lacrosse field in my lifetime has been the one place where nothing else matters. … It's the first time I've felt at odds on the lacrosse field. You come back to work, and you don't feel like you belong. You go home to your apartment and you don't feel like you belong. You go back in the office or on the field and you don't feel like you belong because you've been away for so long.
"The guys have been great. … They didn't bat an eye. They kept me in the loop. They kept me involved as much I could be," said Pietramala. "I was nervous."
Johns Hopkins' next two games are at No. 14 Penn State on Sunday and at Michigan on April 23. Pietramala is unsure whether he will travel to those contests because he can't sit or stand for long periods.
"I'm hopeful it'll be OK to go on a bus [to Penn State]," he said. "We've talked about it. We'll see. And we've talked about a plane ride out to Michigan. Everything's tiring. The bottom line is, what I've been told is, you have to listen to your body. It's a hard thing for a coach to do. We're taught to ignore whatever and do what we've got to do."
And if he doesn't make those games, it is no big deal. His players and assistant coaches needed to see him on the mend, and that was the main thing.