PHILADELPHIA - All of the talk about choking in late May finally fell silent. All of the pain that accompanied a generation's worth of failures on the game's largest stage has been cured. Yesterday at Lincoln Financial Field, a talented, unselfish group of men's lacrosse players made everything all better by dragging a long-lost trophy back home.
The Johns Hopkins Blue Jays punctuated a perfect spring in a way that has defined their journey. They didn't play top-notch lacrosse all day, but they played well enough to stay close and give themselves a chance to win. They used their offense to recover from a shaky start. Then, Hopkins turned to the defense that guided it for major parts of the year, and muted an explosive Duke attack for the game's final 27 minutes.
And once the final seconds ticked off in their grinding, 9-8 victory over the Blue Devils in the NCAA championship game, before a record title game crowd of 44,920, the Blue Jays were free to release the emotions they have held in check for so long.
For the first time in 18 years, Johns Hopkins is king again, and the Blue Jays brought their eighth NCAA crown back to Homewood Field without a scratch on it. Hopkins (16-0) became the first Division I champion to go undefeated since Princeton did it in 1997, and the first Blue Jays squad to do it since 1984.
"I just won a national championship with the guys I love," said senior midfielder Kyle Harrison, who finished his outstanding career with two goals. "It's like the weight has been lifted. [The title] is back where it should be."
The Blue Jays also completed a bridge. Coach Dave Pietramala, a great defenseman on that 1987 Hopkins team who returned to coach at his alma mater in 2000, got to watch his boys finish the job.
Since winning it with Pietramala the player, Hopkins had endured 10 unsuccessful trips to the final four, including a loss to Virginia in the title game in 2003. The senior class, which wrapped up a 55-6 record that included a 36-0 mark at home, had been to three straight final fours, only to come up short each time.
All of that changed yesterday, when the Blue Jays won their fifth one-goal game of the year, two days after coming from behind in miraculous fashion to edge Virginia in overtime, 9-8.
"As a player, not in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would be doing this," Pietramala said. "I am so proud of these guys right now, of what they've endured and what they've overcome.
"They've handled winning and losing with dignity. This is a group of young men who have worked their tails off and have earned the right to call themselves national champions. The senior class, I can't say enough about."
The senior imprint was there all weekend, but the young guys made their presence felt, as they have all season. Against Virginia, seven of Hopkins' nine goals came from seniors. Yesterday, seven of the Blue Jays' nine goals came from the younger guys, including the eventual game-winner from sophomore attackman Jake Byrne, who scored the final goal of the contest with 13:35 left.
From there, the Blue Jays rode a defense behind senior defensemen Tom Garvey and Chris Watson and sophomore goalie Jesse Schwartzman, who made 12 saves and was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player.
Schwartzman gathered himself early, when Duke took early leads of 3-1 and 6-4, while Hopkins was having early trouble possessing the ball and preventing Duke shooters from getting open looks at the net.
He put the clamps on the Blue Devils in the second half with seven saves, highlighting a defensive effort that limited Duke to 11 shots and one goal - the Blue Devils' lowest scoring half of the season.
While Schwartzman was outplaying Duke first-team All-America goalie Aaron Fenton, Garvey and Watson were doing a number on probably the game's two most proficient offensive players in attackmen Matt Danowski and Zack Greer. Danowski, who set a Duke record with 92 points in 2005, had two goals and four assists. But after he scored for an 8-6 lead with 12:43 left in the third quarter, that was it for Duke's offense.
Watson stuffed freshman attack sensation Greer, who entered with 57 goals on the season. Greer ended with one assist and took only one shot. In crunch time, the Duke offense was reduced to Danowski desperately trying to dodge to the goal, where the Blue Jays were cutting off passing lanes and denying good shooting angles.
"We weren't doing a good job of communicating what defense we were in early. Danowski dodging is what we want," said Watson, alluding to the attackman's passing skills. "I had a good feeling [about this team] the more the season went on. When the sun came up on Sunday after that [Virginia] game, I think we figured this was going to be a good day."
Despite losing eight of the game's first 10 faceoffs and throwing the ball away early, the Blue Jays kept punching back at Duke - which came back from a 5-8 finish a year to wind up 17-3 - from all angles, and especially abused short-stick defender Michael Ward.
Freshman attackman Kevin Huntley and freshman midfielder Paul Rabil each had two goals. Rabil beat Ward for his second score, which caromed off Fenton's foot and cut the Blue Devils' lead to 8-7 with 5:56 left in the third period.
Then, with 47 seconds left in the period, after Harrison had to leave the game to replace a broken stick, junior midfielder Greg Peyser joined the first midfield unit and promptly beat Zash with a 12-yard shot to make it 8-8, heading into the fourth quarter.
Byrne then put Blue Jays on top. The defense did the rest, forcing Duke's final turnover with 2:35 left. The Blue Devils never saw the ball again.
"We came out in the second half and really put the hammer down," Peyser said. "Eighteen years, and we're finally back on top." Elite company
With yesterday's victory, Johns Hopkins tied Syracuse for the most NCAA Division I men's lacrosse titles with eight. A look at the multiple winners since the tournament began in 1971: