After Penn State goalie's death, Hopkins' Pietramala says tragedy 'can get overwhelming as a coach'

On Jan. 26, the Johns Hopkins men's lacrosse program learned about the death of freshman defenseman Jeremy Huber from complications associated with pneumonia and flu. The weight of the tragedy contributed to the team's 4-6 start, but coach Dave Pietramala and the Blue Jays bounced back to grab a share of the Big Ten Conference regular-season title and capture the Big Ten tournament championship. They eventually advanced to their first national semifinal appearance since 2008 before falling to Maryland.

On June 12, Penn State redshirt sophomore goalkeeper Connor Darcey died in a car accident in Boston. Darcey started every game in 2015, allowed 10.07 games per game, recorded a .553 save percentage and was named to the Big Ten's All-Tournament team. For Nittany Lions coach Jeff Tambroni, the tragedy revived memories of his tenure at Cornell, where the 2004 squad mourned the passing of defenseman George Boiardi, who was struck in the chest by a lacrosse ball while attempting to block a shot in a game against Binghamton on March 17, 2004.


Darcey's death also reminded Pietramala of the loss of Huber. Pietramala, who is on a recruiting trip, recently discussed the painful link between the passing of two young men at a very young age.

Have you had an opportunity to talk to Penn State coach Jeff Tambroni and can you share what you discussed with him?

I have reached out to him. I actually spoke to him the morning that he found out and the morning I found out. ... So I can imagine it was more shock than anything. We've spoken in person once since then and I've texted back and forth with him numerous times. ... To be honest with you, I leaned on him when this happened to us. Basically, what I've done for him is reach out to him and let him know that I love him, that I care about him, that we're thinking of them, that we understand it's a difficult time and that there's no better person to lead them through this than him.

There's not a lot you can say. I can't tell him how to act because he's got to follow his heart. As we've said a million times, there's no book for this, but Jeff unfortunately has been through this and knows what it takes to get a team through this because he's done that before. So quite frankly, rather than try to tell him how to handle it, I've just tried to lend support to him.

In these times, the kids on the team are going to look to him for answers and it can get overwhelming as a coach. ... You spend so much of your time in these moments thinking about everybody else and what you don't have time to do is worry about yourself or think about yourself. There's not a second for that. It's all about the Darcey family for him, it's all about every one of his players, and it's all about his staff. It's not about anything else than those things, and he feels like it's his job to take care of all of those people.

As sad as it is, he doesn't have time to worry about himself right now, and he should, and it's important that he do that. But I know him, and he's going to worry about all those around him, and I just want him to know that there's someone here for him as well.

Did the Connor Darcey tragedy revive memories of what you and the team were forced to face after the death of Jeremy Huber?

There's no doubt. I got a call from [Blue Jays junior defenseman] Matt O'Keefe, who is a Duxbury kid. Matt was teammates with Connor [who lived in Wellesley]. They know each other from town. I got a call from Bob O'Keefe and our administrative assistant called back and said, "Bob O'Keefe is on the phone. He needs to talk to you right now."

When you hear that as a coach, the first thing you think is, "Oh my God, what happened?" I got on the phone and Bob quickly told me what happened to Connor, and the first thing I could think about was the Darcey family and the next thing I thought about was Matt O'Keefe. Matt's friends with him and now Matt's got to go through this again. For these young people to have to experience this kind of loss at this age, it's awful. It's a fact of life, but it's awful.

As adults, we're more equipped to handle it and understand it and process it. For these young people, it's really hard to do that. Knowing what my team went through and what Jeff's team has to go through, I feel for them.

Have you sat back and reflected on the team's first trip to the Final Four since 2008 and the Big Ten tournament championship in light of dealing with the aftermath of Huber's passing?

I've had a difficult time reflecting. I don't know that I've been able to sit down and come to grips with all that, to sit down and take a lot of time alone to think about it. Quite frankly, sometimes I try not to because it's all we thought of for so long, and it was in front of us for so long, for so many days in a row. Sometimes it feels nice just to get away a little bit.

When I heard about Connor, it brought back those memories. I still talk to the Hubers all the time, and I have plans to go out there this summer. I feel like there's so much I want to say to them that I just have not been able to. I actually spoke to Bob [Huber] via text about Connor and how tragic it was. I'm sure it was difficult for them to hear about it and think about what they've been through and now what the Darcey family is going to go through.

Jeff was nice enough to reach out to the Hubers sometime after Jeremy had passed as a guy who had been through it. At some point in time, I'll reach out to the Darcey family. I obviously want to let the dust settle. It just seems like there's more of this around us. I don't think it's happening more than it used to. I just think we hear about it a lot more and we're more aware of what's going on in our community and our lacrosse community. It's sad.


At the end of the day, when you think about what was lost, I watched that kid play. I recruited him and got to know him and his dad. He was a good kid, a really good kid and a very talented young man. But, most importantly, he was just a good guy, and you listen to all of these wonderful things that people are saying about him and you think, "How does this happen?" Unfortunately, it's hard to make sense of it all, and as coaches, our job is to try and help these young people make sense of these things that they're going through. It's challenging.

Are there more dangers surrounding athletes now than 10 or 20 years ago and do you as a coach feel powerless to protect your players from those risks?

Maybe the hardest thing we do as coaches is, we work with young athletes who are at an age where oftentimes they feel invincible and they don't always make the best decisions. They're teenagers and that's what teenagers do. We did it when we were younger. You're working with young people that take risks, believe they can do anything. That's hard sometimes because you're dealing with a group that is at such a [formative] age and an impressionable age. They know a lot, but they don't know everything. ... There is no doubt that there are moments when you're helpless.

How many times do you tell a young child, "Don't touch the stove because it's hot and you're going to get burned?" But they do it and the way they learn is by doing it. That happens with young adults, too. They're not old enough to have the experience of an adult. Yet, they are old enough to make their own decisions and take their own chances, and as a coach, we talk to them all the time about the concerns about drinking, the concerns about drugs, the concerns about social media. But at the end of the day, they're still young people and they still make mistakes, and it's those mistakes that mold them and help them develop and help them gain experience.


And it is a helpless feeling that you can tell them a million times, but it doesn't mean that it's gotten through and we can't be with them. We can't be with them after midnight and nothing good usually happens after midnight. That's when you hope your message has gotten through, you hope that your team leaders are continuing to carry that message away from the practice facility. You hope that they're all looking out for each other and you hope to God that they don't make mistakes. I sleep with my phone right next to me on every night praying to God that it doesn't ring. As a coach, that's the life you live.

We're so blessed to work with these young people, and it's such a special thing to see them grow and come of age and become what they are capable of becoming. And it is even more tragic to see what happened to Jeremy or what happened to Connor. Whatever the cause is, to see that happen, to see that young life cut so short, it's awful to see. I feel horribly for the Darcey family and for Jeff and the Penn State lacrosse family.