HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. —- In the minds of Johns Hopkins’ lacrosse players, coach Dave Pietramala surmised, Denver was a different entity.
The Pioneers weren’t North Carolina or Virginia or Maryland, programs possessing rich histories with which the Blue Jays were familiar.
And they were right. Denver was different —- and better —- than those bluebloods were against Hopkins this season.
The sixth-seeded Pioneers scrapped their way to their first final four appearance, ripping the third-seeded Blue Jays 14-9 before 13,447 at Shuart Stadium in just the latest evidence of a change in lacrosse’s dynamics.
“We just got beat today,” Pietramala said. “I don’t think our team gave them the level of respect they deserved. Why that is, I don’t know, but I don’t think we did.”
Maybe it’s because Denver (15-2) just won its first postseason game less than a week earlier. Or maybe it was because Hopkins (13-3) handled nearly every situation sent its way for more than two months.
Whatever the reason, there was little arguing the Pioneers’ on-field dominance as they became the first team to make its first final four appearance since Delaware in 2007.
“I’m just thrilled to be here and thrilled to be moving on to the final four with this group of young men,” Denver coach Bill Tierney said. “They’ve made believers out of me, that’s for sure.”
This is hardly new territory for Tierney, who won six national titles between 1992 and 2001 at Princeton. He coached his last game with the Tigers in a quarterfinal at Hofstra in 2009, leaving a month later for a new challenge at one of the sport’s western outposts.
Few could have expected as rapid a rise, even if the Pioneers made postseason cameos in 2006 and 2008. Against Hopkins, Denver dominated faceoffs in the first half (8-for-12) and built a 7-3 edge at the break.
The Blue Jays had a rally in them, rattling off three straight goals to close within 8-7. Yet the Pioneers responded with a goal from Todd Baxter, who was playing on a badly sprained ankle and a partially torn medial collateral ligament.
That set off a five-goal burst, which in turn led to a classic Tierney tactic of judiciously and effectively burning clock in the fourth quarter.
Baxter and Cameron Flint both scored three times for Denver, which will meet seventh-seeded Virginia (11-5) in the semifinals on Saturday in Baltimore.
“They played better than us,” Pietramala said. “You can try to find fancy words for it and window dress it all you want. They beat us.”
It was a sour way for Hopkins to finish what was an otherwise remarkable season. The Blue Jays endured their first losing season in nearly four decades last spring, and Pietramala alluded Saturday to external doubts about the program’s ability to bounce back.
Instead, Hopkins overcome a shaky early outing against Princeton to reclaim its spot among the sport’s elite. A youthful and eager team re-energized Pietramala, and an eight-game winning streak entering the quarterfinals hinted the future is particularly bright.
“I don’t have any regrets,” said senior attackman Kyle Wharton (three goals). “This was my favorite season playing. I can say that.”
It just ended in the quarterfinals or earlier for the third straight year, the first time that’s happened at Hopkins since the tournament began in 1971. Yet there’s substantial promise the streak won’t last much longer.
Indeed, Hopkins’ upshot Saturday was comprehending Denver’s quarterfinal trip wasn’t a blip. Indeed, the only anomaly was a lousy day from the Blue Jays, who played smart until an ill-advised misstep on the doorstep of the final four.
“I’m proud as hell of my team,” Pietramala said. “It was a good year that ended on a bad note.”
—- Patrick Stevens