- The Washington Times - Monday, May 26, 2008

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — In the cloistered realm of college lacrosse, Johns Hopkins and Syracuse are the most enduring headliners.

The truest of the bluebloods own nine NCAA titles each, winning nearly half of the tournaments contested since the event was established in 1971. Both schools possess earnest followings, a legion of All-Americans and plenty of lore.

They were omnipresent, Syracuse with its 24 final four appearances in 26 years and Johns Hopkins with its postseason streak of 37 years — at least until the Orange were forced into serious soul-searching after a stunning 5-8 season last spring. Johns Hopkins appeared on its way to a similar fate this season, dropping a school-record five straight games.

Yet when more than 40,000 fans pack Gillette Stadium today, it will be third-seeded Syracuse (15-2) and fifth-seeded Johns Hopkins (11-5) playing for the title.

“Everyone wants to talk about parity, but here we are,” Blue Jays coach Dave Pietramala said. “Here’s Syracuse and here’s Johns Hopkins. I think we’ve kind of both gone through a difficult period.”

The Orange looked nothing like a juggernaut a year ago, suffering their first losing season since 1975. Off-field issues helped to derail a program accustomed to shrugging off challenges with regularity.

Syracuse’s John Desko shuffled the responsibilities of his staff, a relatively jarring decision for a team so rooted in stability it has employed just three head coaches since 1931.

“Had we limped into the playoffs last year, who knows?” Desko said. “We might have said we got it back at the end of the year and maybe kept things just the way they were. But we made some changes.”

His players did even more, promising themselves a more arduous offseason and, above all, avoiding a rerun of the previous year that ended a 22-year final four streak.

“We hit a pretty big lull at the end of last season and vowed to work hard and change our attitude and do everything it took to get to this point,” attackman Mike Leveille said. “Now that we’re here and we’re back, it feels great. We knew we had the talent to do it. We just felt like we were underachieving.”

The same might be said of the Blue Jays, who won two of the last three national titles and were expected to pursue another with the bulk of last year’s champions back.

But after a 3-0 start, the Blue Jays were disjointed in blowout losses to North Carolina and Duke, with a porous defense doing little to protect sophomore goalie Michael Gvozden.

It was late in that miserable month that several players approached Pietramala and his staff and offered camouflage wrist bands, a symbol of being on a mission.

The players wore them as well and coincidentally or not, the Blue Jays have won eight straight. Gvozden has morphed into a stingy goalie, and both the offense and defense have inched closer to their level of play from a year ago.

And like Syracuse, it has brought Johns Hopkins back to an all-too-familiar place.

“It’s just a testament to the tradition of these programs more than anything,” attackman Michael Doneger said. “Syracuse’s team, they’ve been there before, and they know they can do it and the same with us. We’ve been there before, and we know we can do it. … It’s not so much a surprise, but we’re real happy that we were able to overcome it.”

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