- The Washington Times - Monday, May 16, 2011

BALTIMORE — As Johns Hopkins’ most humbling lacrosse season in four decades ended with the most lopsided NCAA tournament loss in its storied history last spring, perhaps no one felt the sting quite like Matt Dolente.

The faceoff man spent the latter stages of a 13-goal loss to eventual national champion Duke stuck on the sideline, a seldom-used freshman taking draws in his stead. Dolente’s season was over, his meager .464 faceoff percentage a part of the Blue Jays’ first losing season since 1971.

The message from Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala was unmistakable, and it wasn’t long before he knew how Dolente would respond.

“My sense was Matt was going to do something, and his legacy was not going to be as a 46 percent faceoff guy,” Pietramala said. “The greatest factor for Matt was the dose of humility and reality he got and we got. The fact is, we all had to live with it.”

At least until this spring, when Dolente’s offseason efforts along with a new coach and a fortuitous rule change have turned him into arguably the nation’s most improved player.

The senior enters Saturday’s quarterfinal against sixth-seeded Denver in Hempstead, N.Y., amid what could be the best faceoff season in school history. His .672 winning percentage leads the country, and the third-seeded Blue Jays (13-2) have exorcised much of the misery of a year ago largely because of the possession edge Dolente provides.

“You don’t come to Hopkins to get your butt whipped in the first round,” Dolente said.

Dolente didn’t permit it to happen again. He won 13 of 20 draws in Saturday’s 12-5 rout of Hofstra in the first round to help push Hopkins within a victory of its first Memorial Day weekend appearance in three years.

There might not be many secrets to Dolente’s improvement. On many days when Hopkins didn’t practice in the fall, Dolente would take an iPod playing a loop of whistles to midfield and get to work improving his technique.

“Faceoffs is something you can do by yourself,” attackman Kyle Wharton said. “He’s always listening to whistles. He’s always watching film. I’ve lived with him for four years now, and I can’t tell you what he has been doing differently. I think he’s just been doing the same stuff and it’s been paying off.”

Hopkins also added a new faceoff coach, Jamison Koesterer, in the offseason. Koesterer played on the Blue Jays’ 2005 and 2007 championship teams and offered a hands-on approach that complements the cerebral Dolente well.

But a rules tweak helps, too. Previously, officials would say “down” before blowing a whistle, leading to a guessing game that turned Dolente into a violation magnet. With the addition of the order to “set,” an advantage was swung in favor of technically sound faceoff men and away from guys who relied almost exclusively on power.

“For me, bringing momentum into the faceoff isn’t a huge benefit. I’m only 160, 165 pounds going against guys who are usually a bit bigger than that,” Dolente said. “I think getting the guy stopped has helped me because it doesn’t allow people to use their size as much against me.”

As a result, Dolente’s miscues have plummeted. Koesterer said Hopkins averaged between four and five violations a game last season before falling below one an outing this spring.

The statistical upshot is Dolente’s numbers are improved. The reality is Hopkins gets three or four extra possessions a game - and it’s a major reason why the Blue Jays are playing deep into May.

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