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Johns Hopkins parts ways with men’s lacrosse coach Dave Pietramala after 20 seasons, two national titles

Johns Hopkins Blue Jays head coach Dave Pietramala at Ridley Athletic Complex Sat., Feb. 15, 2020. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff)
Johns Hopkins Blue Jays head coach Dave Pietramala at Ridley Athletic Complex Sat., Feb. 15, 2020. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff) (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

Dave Pietramala’s tenure as Johns Hopkins men’s lacrosse coach has come to an end after two decades.

Johns Hopkins announced Tuesday morning that it would not retain Pietramala, who was in his 20th year in Baltimore and in the final season of a four-year contract.

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Athletic director Jennifer S. Baker said a national search for Pietramala’s successor will begin immediately.

“For two decades, Dave Pietramala guided our men’s lacrosse program and we are truly thankful for his tireless efforts and the leadership he provided to the young men who represented Johns Hopkins at the highest level on and off the field,” Baker said in a written statement distributed by the school. “Very few great players have demonstrated the ability to become great coaches; Dave Pietramala has done that and his legacy as a player and coach is virtually unmatched in the world of college lacrosse. Our focus now is on the future and ensuring we identify the best person to lead our program and build on the tremendous history and tradition of Johns Hopkins lacrosse.”

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Pietramala, a standout defenseman for the Blue Jays from 1986 to 1989, leaves the program as its winningest coach with 207 wins, 49 more than the late Bob Scott. He guided the Blue Jays to NCAA championships in 2005 and 2007, two more title game appearances in 2003 and 2008, and three more Final Four berths in 2002, 2004 and 2015. He is the only player in college lacrosse history to win a Division I national championship as a player, in 1987, and as a coach.

But in the past four seasons, the program had been bounced from the first round of the NCAA tournament three times and earned spots in the postseason with identical 7-7 records in 2016 and 2017. The 2020 team had lost four in a row before rallying from a four-goal deficit to edge Mount St. Mary’s in overtime March 10 before the rest of the season was wiped out by the coronavirus pandemic.

“Dave has been coaching for 20 years and had played there. He basically had been at Hopkins for half of his life,” said ESPN analyst and former All-American goalkeeper Quint Kessenich, who had played with Pietramala in 1987. “I don’t think there’s anyone who has put more into Hopkins lacrosse. He’s won more games than any coach in history there, and he’s one of the top three players in the program’s history. So it’s a tough day.”

Praise for Pietramala flooded the national lacrosse landscape after the move was announced.

“Both surprised and overwhelmed with emotion by this,” former Hopkins star and Premier Lacrosse League co-founder Paul Rabil tweeted. "Coach Petro invited me and so many into the Hopkins family, and I’m fortunate to have a lifetime of memories I’ll cherish with him — he‘s the game’s greatest combo HOF player and coach, ever.

“Thank you, @CoachPetro43. Took a chance on a skinny kid from Friends School, and man what a run we had,” tweeted Kyle Harrison, who played at Hopkins from 2002 to 2005.

“To the coach that was more like his players than I knew, recruited me at 15 years old, Had my back on and off the field more than any coach could’ve. I wish I had done more in my four years to help you stay cuz it’s what you deserved. Hopkins royalty," former Hopkins midfielder Joel Tinney tweeted.

“It is a challenge for D1 college coaches to remain really friendly,” former Virginia coach Dom Starsia, who won four national titles with the Cavaliers, tweeted. “The battles in the recruiting can be as ferocious as those on game day. I have a profound respect for DP, based on the personal quality I respect above all others, honesty. He is a man of great integrity."

Holden Cattoni, a former midfielder who graduated in 2016, applauded the move.

“All good things comes to those that wait. Can finally be a Hopkins Lacrosse fan again! #ByeDave," he wrote on Twitter.

Still, the university’s decision to let Pietramala go did not sit well with others.

“This decision is a mistake [in my opinion] - sad day for lacrosse in general and really sad if your [sic] a fan of JHU lacrosse," Andy Towers, coach of the Chaos in the Premier Lacrosse League, tweeted.

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“Dave Pietramala is an outstanding coach and a good friend,” former Loyola Maryland and Maryland coach Dave Cottle said. “I feel for him, but this is a strange time to do this in the middle of what is going on in this country. The timing was not good.”

Pietramala did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Senior short-stick defensive midfielder Marc Pion said that the players received an email from the school about not retaining Pietramala about 30 minutes before the decision was announced publicly.

“This comes as a surprise, we had no idea this was happening,” Pion said after the players had convened for an impromptu meeting. “Coach Petro was a great leader. This program meant more to him than anybody I’ve ever been around. He always treated his players well, like they were family. The guys coming back don’t know what to expect because this all seems so surreal. Coach Petro was responsible for bringing all of us here to Hopkins.”

The university’s move prompted senior attackman Cole Williams, who led the 2020 squad in scoring, to put his name into the NCAA’s transfer portal, according to Inside Lacrosse.

Big Ten Network/ESPN analyst Mark Dixon, who was a midfielder for the Blue Jays from 1991 to 1994, said that Pietramala’s status is outrivaled only by Scott’s.

“He’s one of the top five players to ever play at Johns Hopkins and probably the greatest defenseman to ever play at Johns Hopkins,” Dixon said. “Everyone’s going to say that these past couple of years as being rough for Hopkins lacrosse, but they still went to the NCAA tournament [18 times in 19 seasons] and won two Big Ten [tournament] championships. He also has two national championships, and he took them to title games in 2003 and 2008. I think that legacy is cemented when you look at Dave Pietramala overall as a player and as a coach.”

Every Memorial Day weekend, Nick Fields and teammates of his youth lacrosse team would travel with their fathers to either Baltimore, Philadelphia or Foxborough, Massachusetts, to attend the NCAA Division I men’s tournament semifinals and final, and each visit served to reinforce his fondness for Johns Hopkins.

So one might imagine his excitement when as a freshman at the Bullis School in Potomac, he walked past Pietramala, who greeted Fields and offered him a word of encouragement.

“You could say I was starstruck,” recalled Fields, who was a three-year starting defenseman for Pietramala until he graduated in 2017. “Coach Pietramala is the greatest defenseman to ever play the game, and being a defender and seeing him and watching his old film and knowing that he’s one of the greatest defensive minds the game has ever seen, I would say that he’s on the Mount Rushmore of greatest lacrosse players of all time. So that moment was definitely something special.”

Former attackman Kyle Marr, who graduated last spring, said Pietramala’s presence convinced him to choose the Blue Jays over competitors such as Penn, Michigan and Albany, which is helmed by his father Scott.

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“He and my dad have been friends since they went to Hopkins together, and since I was a little kid, I was a fan of his teams and what they were doing,” Marr said. “For him to bring a national championship back to Hopkins, that was always my dream to get one as well. Just the comfort level that I had with him and just knowing that he would do whatever it was to take care of me and that my dad really appreciated that, he was a huge part in that decision.”

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Fields, the former defenseman, said Pietramala emphasized that a person’s true character was revealed by what he or she did behind closed doors and how he or she interacted with others. He said that Pietramala also prioritized staying connected with players who had graduated.

“He wants to know what’s going on in your life after lacrosse,” Fields said. “I graduated in ‘17 and three years later, he’s still checking in and making sure that my family’s doing OK. That’s the kind of stuff that sticks with you, not just the on-field stuff.”

Pietramala earned the respect of coaching rivals, who tangled with him on the field in games and off the field in recruiting.

“For years, Dave has been a good friend and a sounding board for me even though we were rivals on the field,” Loyola Maryland coach Charley Toomey said in a text. “I have a deep respect for him as a coach, teacher, mentor and person.”

“My thoughts are with Coach Petro and his boys [Nicholas and Dominic, sophomore twins at Boys’ Latin] during this time,” Towson coach Shawn Nadelen said in a text. Nadelen played for Pietramala as a senior in 2001, Pietramala’s first season as coach. “I have had the honor of playing for him and learning from him as a young man and as a coach. He is a great man and mentor.”

Pion, the midfielder on the 2020 squad, said it will be difficult to imagine a Johns Hopkins program without Pietramala.

“During this virus situation, he was always contacting us daily and we were having weekly Zoom meetings,” he said. “He cared about his players. Coach Petro and Hopkins are almost synonymous. Nobody expected this to happen this way.”

Baltimore Sun columnist Mike Preston contributed to this article.

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