- The Washington Times - Friday, May 27, 2005

It was just minutes after Johns Hopkins finished a rout of Loyola earlier this month, and Blue Jays coach Dave Pietramala was a bit misty-eyed as his seniors walked off Homewood Field for the final time in the regular season.

Pietramala, arguably the best and most intimidating defenseman in the history of the game and now one of its best coaches, near tears? Petro — the fiery sideline presence with heated words and an icy glare to match for players and officials who run afoul of him — on the verge of crying?

It seems hard to believe, especially as lacrosse’s growth on television has reduced some of its notable personnel to overly simplified caricatures, particularly Pietramala as a berserk sideline czar. But as Hopkins’ 11-man senior class has developed as players, so has Pietramala as a coach.

With the help of the veteran group, Pietramala has matured in the five years since he took over the storied program at his alma mater at 32.

“I am more at ease in a lot of the situations I find myself than four or five years or eight years ago, when I first [coached at] Cornell,” said Pietramala, whose top-seeded Blue Jays (14-0) face fourth-seeded Virginia (11-3) in the NCAA tournament semifinals tomorrow in Philadelphia. “You look at a growth a player has from his first year to his last year, and coaches are no different. I don’t know everything. I’m still learning. I’m a young coach, and I don’t know it all. With this group, we’ve learned together. That’s pretty cool.”

Players rave about the relationships — a word that inevitably arises in any conversation with Pietramala about his players — that Pietramala and his staff have cultivated. Midfielder Kyle Harrison mentions all the times Pietramala has had food delivered to the locker room after a tough practice. Defenseman Chris Watson describes the casual conversations players have with Pietramala about family, girlfriends and life in general.

And there are the frequent phone calls, whether about academics or Watson talking to Pietramala while the coach is scouting a game.

“There’s no other coach in the country I’d rather play for,” Watson said. “I see on the field coaches that make great strategy decisions, but I don’t know if there’s a coach out there that cares as much about his players. I have friends that play at a lot of schools, and I know they have great coaches, but I don’t know if they have that added dimension in their relationships.”

Yet Pietramala’s sideline presence hasn’t mellowed. Said assistant coach Seth Tierney: “Maybe it’s in the lanyard. I don’t know, but when that goes over his head, something goes off. Popeye eats spinach; this guy throws a lanyard on and hits the gas pedal.”

Despite Pietramala’s fiery temper, there has been more dialogue this season between him and the Blue Jays. That’s a byproduct of a well-earned trust Pietramala has built with his first recruiting class at Hopkins over the last four years.

Hopkins’ seniors will play in their fourth final four this weekend. They have been the No. 1 seed in the tournament all four years and never lost a game at Homewood Field. As a result of that experience, Pietramala has loosened the reins at times this season and allowed some levity to permeate the team.

“We were doing a walkthrough and I’m playing the ball, and Coach asks, ‘Harry, what are you going to do when this guy dodges down the side?’ and I’m like, ‘I’m going to go over his head, he’s going to shoot, Jesse [Schwartzman]’s going to make a save and we’re going to clear’ ” Harrison said. “Three years ago, he would have flipped out and said, ‘What the [heck] did you just say.’ [This time] he just smiled and said, ‘OK.’ ”

It probably helps that the Blue Jays have not lost since last year’s NCAA semifinals. Hopkins is 61-10 in Pietramala’s five-year tenure, and 53-6 over the last four seasons. Yet outside the lacrosse coaching fraternity, his tireless recruiting work and success are overshadowed by his image as a spitfire.

“I think Coach Petro gets a bad rap because I think he’s got this aura around him in the lacrosse world that he’s an absolute tyrant, and it’s so far from the truth,” Tierney said. “It’s just not true. He’s got high expectations and demands, but they know that going in. It’s not like, ‘Surprise, here I am and this is how we do it.’ ”

Those expectations haven’t changed, even as Pietramala has grown as a coach and nurtured a Hopkins lacrosse family he is clearly proud of. Neither has his competitive nature, to which he remains true every day.

“I don’t want these kids to fail. I get a chance to come back the following year, and my seniors don’t,” Pietramala said. “If it takes me yelling at an official and looking like a lunatic to help us get a call, then I’m going to do that.

“They know there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for them off the field. I’m just very competitive and very, very passionate, and I don’t hide it well. I can’t. I don’t know how. If I went out to a game and I just stood on the sideline like a mummy, it would hurt our team because our guys would see it and wonder what the problem is. It’s not me.”

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