Nick Fields is a gregarious and has an engaging personality. But when asked about the defense for the Johns Hopkins men's lacrosse team surrendering 11.6 goals per game last spring – the most since 1994 – the senior defenseman does not offer much in terms of analysis.
"We don't really talk about last year a lot," he said.
That might border on exaggeration, but it illustrates how upset the defensive players were with their performance on that end of the field — a showing capped by a 17-8 loss to Brown in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Many of the players returning this season vowed to make amends, and it appears so far that they are making good on that pledge.
Through two games, the defense has allowed just 13 total goals to No. 17 Navy and UMBC to help the Blue Jays start 2-0 and rise from No. 9 to No. 5 in the most recent Maverik media poll.
Among Division I teams that have played more than one game, Johns Hopkins' 6.5 average goals against average is tied with High Point for third in Division I, trailing only No. 3 and reigning NCAA champion North Carolina (4.5) and Providence (6.0). Neither of those teams has tangled with a ranked opponent.
No one may be more pleased at the defense's reversal than coach Dave Pietramala, a three-time, first-team All-American defenseman who played on the 1989 squad that allowed only 6.8 goals per game, the fewest by a Blue Jays team since 1971, when the NCAA started a national tournament.
"I know our guys had a very bad taste in their mouths after the Brown game, across the board," Pietramala said. "This is a very young season, and we're going to be challenged far more than we've been to this point, but so far, this group has been dedicated. They've been detail-oriented. Their preparedness has been enjoyable to see. They're a good group of young men. They clearly understand that there were some areas of deficiency a year ago that they are working at correcting."
Some areas the team has targeted are off-ball defense, ground balls and the clearing game. Senior short-stick defensive midfielder Joe Carlini said the players have also made a renewed commitment to watch film with either Pietramala or associate head coach/defensive coordinator Bill Dwan.
"In years past, we have done that, but this year, we thought we really have to know our opponents better than we have in the past," Carlini said. "I think that everyone has really bought into the fact that if you study in the film room, it will pay off on the field. You'll be able to play with more confidence and play more aggressive if you understand what you're trying to accomplish by watching a lot of film."
Fields said the players have also altered their mental approach.
"As a defense, one thing we've done moving forward is taking things personally," he said. "Losing a one-on-one in practice, that's personal. Missing a two-slide or missing a rotation, that's personal. We're just really trying to be accountable to the guys to your left and your right and just play for each other."
What is surprising is that the defense has run smoothly despite some new personnel. Goalkeeper Brock Turnbaugh, who started all 15 games last year, lost the job to Gerald Logan, a graduate student transfer from the University of Michigan.
Senior defenseman Austin Spencer moved back to his more natural position of long-stick midfielder, and freshman Jack Rapine replaced him in the starting lineup. Sophomore defenseman Patrick Foley, another 15-game starter, will sit out this season due to an academic issue, opening the door for senior Trevor Koelsch start for the first time.
Despite the new faces, there are mainstays such as Fields, Carlini, and junior short-stick defensive midfielder Tal Bruno. UMBC coach Ryan Moran, who watched his team score only five goals in a blowout loss to the Blue Jays on Saturday, said Hopkins' defense is anchored by Fields, who has emerged as one of the top cover defenders in the country.
"I think he's someone that they can say, 'Hey, we're going to put you on an attackman and we're not going to slide to you,'" Moran said. "If you look at the Hopkins defenses in the past, they always had that one guy to say, 'Hey, you're on your own.'"
On Saturday, Johns Hopkins will face a stiff test in No. 9 Loyola Maryland, which lost 16-15 to No. 7 Virginia despite sophomore attackman Pat Spencer and senior midfielders Brian Sherlock and Romar Dennis getting shut out as scorers. Pietramala said his defense has potential, but knows that potent offenses such as the ones from the Greyhounds, No. 2 Maryland, and No. 3 North Carolina await.
"I think this group has the desire to be a very good defense," he said. "I just think we have a lot of lacrosse ahead of us and a lot of greater challenges ahead of us that will help us define where we are and how much more we need to develop and grow."