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College Lacrosse

Hyped freshmen the focus when Hopkins meets Virginia in lacrosse

Johns Hopkins' attacker Forry Smith controls the ball as UMBC midfielder Mason Witzler defends in the UMBC-Hopkins lacrosse game on Feb. 11, 2017.

Sometime after the 92nd installment of the men's lacrosse rivalry between Virginia and Johns Hopkins has wrapped up Saturday afternoon, Forry Smith and Cole Williams of the Blue Jays and Michael Kraus and Dox Aitken of the Cavaliers might congregate somewhere on Homewood Field in Baltimore and pose for a picture.

"I'm excited to see them this weekend," Smith said.

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Added Aitken: "I think there will definitely be a picture after the game."

That snapshot would capture four of the most discussed first-year offensive players in Division I entering 2017. Inside Lacrosse placed the four rookies among the Top 32 of its ranking of incoming freshmen back in September.

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Heading into Saturday's game at 1 p.m, the two players from Virginia have exceeded expectations while the two from Hopkins haven't yet.

Kraus, an attackman, leads No. 15 Virginia (5-3) in points with 21 goals and 18 assists. With 20 goals, Aitken has already set a program record for goals by a first-year midfielder, and he was added to the Tewaaraton Award Watch List on March 16.

Meanwhile, Smith and Williams, both attackmen for No. 17 Johns Hopkins (4-3), have compiled eight and four points, respectively, in seven games, and have yet to make a start.

ESPN analyst Paul Carcaterra thinks there are two reasons for the varying degrees of success for the rookies. One is the offensive style at each school.

Cavaliers coach Lars Tiffany has brought the up-tempo pace he fostered at Brown, which is reflected in his current team ranking third in the country in scoring at 15.5 goals per game.

"Lars Tiffany's offense allows more touches and opportunities because of the way they play on both ends of the field," said Carcaterra, a former Syracuse midfielder. "These guys are getting a lot more unsettled looks than a majority of the rest of college lacrosse. Maybe there are five or six other teams out there that play at that speed."

Another factor is the rate of the players' development to the college level, Carcaterra said.

"To me, it's clearly a difference of talent right now," he said. "Dox Aitken broke the Virginia freshman midfield scoring record in the beginning stages of March. He's playing like a complete beast. Michael Kraus, if there wasn't Michael Sowers at Princeton, would be the best freshman attackman. I just think these are two players that have been able to acclimate quicker to the college game."

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Tiffany credited Kraus' and Aitken's accelerated transition to their maturity level, citing a postgame press conference after a 14-13 loss to No. 6 Syracuse at the Carrier Dome on March 5 in which the rookies handled every question with poise.

"What I'm seeing with Michael and Dox is they just don't let that stuff stick to them," Tiffany said of the scrutiny from media and the attention from opposing defenders. "They shed it, and they go make the next play. They just have a mental and emotional composure that defines them."

There were tough moments for Aitken as he adjusted to the rigors of college life in the fall. But any anxieties about his place in lacrosse were wiped away when he scored four goals in the Cavaliers' 16-15 season-opening win at No. 18 Loyola Maryland on Feb. 11.

"I was pretty nervous going into the Loyola game," he recalled. "Once I stepped on the field and took my first couple steps, things started to settle down a little bit. I kind of just tried to tell myself to just play. You're supposed to love the game and go out there and have fun, and that's what I tried to do."

Kraus and Aitken also benefited from the graduation of attackman James Pannell and midfielder Greg Coholan, which created openings in the starting lineup for them to fill. Smith and Williams joined Johns Hopkins knowing that sophomore Kyle Marr and senior John Crawley had the inside track to join senior Wilkins Dismuke and junior Shack Stanwick (Boys' Latin) as the starters on attack.

Smith, who has posted six goals and two assists, said he is not fretting about meeting outside expectations because of the philosophy espoused by offensive coordinator Bobby Benson.

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"The way our offense works, we could have one guy that gets 10 points one day and then we could have another guy that gets 10 points the next day," he said. "It's more about playing for the guys on our offense than playing for any one individual. There's games where our offense is running well and everyone gets into the action, and there's days when a few guys stand up based on their matchups. So it's a day-by-day thing."

Blue Jays coach Dave Pietramala said he has been pleased with Smith and Williams' progress thus far.

"We knew both were talented high school players," he said. "They're both terrific young men. They're really enjoyable and pleasant young men to be around. They're always smiling, they love being here at Hopkins, and they're nothing but positive influences to those around them. It's just as a freshman, you experience ups and downs, and there are games when things are working for you and there are games when things are more challenging."

In high school, Smith (Haverford) and Williams (Loyola Blakefield) were immediate stars. This season, perhaps more than any other, has reinforced the virtue of perseverance for Smith.

"There are going to be times when you get your chances and you can either make the most of them or fall short," he said. "Just getting in to play with guys like Shack and John and [senior defenseman] Nick [Fields] and [graduate student goalie] Gerald [Logan], it's been awesome. It's not as much about being patient as it is about being a sponge and soaking up all the things they have to say and their work ethic and the things they do on the field and in the classroom."

edward.lee@baltsun.com

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