- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 29, 2007

BALTIMORE — Less than seven weeks ago, Johns Hopkins had no clue the fortunes of its lacrosse team would be determined deep into May, let alone on Memorial Day.

But after a masterful nine-game winning streak culminating with Monday’s 12-11 victory over Duke, the Blue Jays secured one of the most unusual titles in the NCAA tournament’s 37-year history.

Johns Hopkins (13-4) is the first champion with four losses since 1972. It is the rare Blue Jays squad that escaped notice for almost the entire season rather than serving as a national pacesetter. And it is the first team to collect a title after enduring a three-game losing streak, erasing a 4-4 start with a sublime finishing flourish.

“You say it can happen, but there’s always that little doubt in your mind where you’re going, ‘I don’t know if we’re going to win nine games in a row,’ ” long pole Brendan Skakandi said. “Now that we did it, it’s really unbelievable.”

An encore next season would not be nearly as surprising.

The Blue Jays’ losses are light for a title team. Of their top 10 scorers, only attackman Jake Byrne is a senior. Goalie Jesse Schwartzman, a three-year starter and the tournament’s most outstanding player, will be gone, as will Skakandi.

Johns Hopkins returns an impressive collection of talent. Paul Rabil, who finished with 27 goals and 26 assists, and part-time faceoff man Stephen Peyser both took huge leaps as juniors and will anchor the midfield. Kevin Huntley, who scored the game-winner Monday, is back on attack.

The entire close defense remains intact, assuming Eric Zerrlaut takes advantage of his redshirt season. And Johns Hopkins adds a solid recruiting class and returns shutdown defenseman Matt Drenan, who missed the season with a torn ACL.

“I don’t want to put any pressure on them, but I think this team is just going to reload,” Byrne said. “We don’t really graduate that much, and I think this team can really do some special things next year.”

Just like this year’s group, which won Johns Hopkins’ second title in three years after a 17-season drought. There could be a budding dynasty in Baltimore, the first at Homewood since the Blue Jays won three titles in four years in the 1980s.

Coach Dave Pietramala has crafted a program to his exacting, demanding standards, and his first title in 2005 was the capstone to an undefeated season. This one was a bit different, one forged through a less predictable season and earned by a bunch that was perhaps the nation’s best team only on the final weekend of the season.

That’s when it counts, and championship banners collected in such fashion sometimes do more to ignite future success than triumphs as an undisputed favorite.

“In ‘05, I probably felt differently because there was a lot of pressure, but I felt like we finally achieved what we should have,” Johns Hopkins assistant Bill Dwan said. “This team, I wouldn’t say I’m surprised because I felt we had the talent to do it, but I’d be lying to you if I said at 4-4 we were thinking about winning a championship.”

Instead, they just wanted to make the tournament after enduring Johns Hopkins’ first three-game skid since 1990. An overtime victory at Maryland clinched on Rabil’s runner reinvigorated the Blue Jays, who went on to beat Navy the next weekend to provide further stabilization.

After a scare in the first round against Notre Dame, Johns Hopkins dissected Georgetown and Delaware to reach the title game, in which it pounced on Duke early and then held on for its sixth one-goal victory of the season.

“It really hasn’t sunk in for me yet,” Skakandi said. “I’m just so proud of what everybody did this year and how we straightened out a little bit and got rid of all the garbage and the nonsense and really focused on what we had to do to win every week.”

For seven weeks and nine games, it worked out perfectly for Johns Hopkins. And with that experience, perhaps it will again next spring for the sport’s most tradition-laden program.

“It’s looking bright,” Peyser said. “If we can win like this and what are we, 13-4? Anything’s possible next year.”

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