I often hear fans and journalists claim that no other sports team has won so many championships as the New York Yankees. As a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, and a stickler for detail, that’s always raised my ire. JHU won its first men’s lacrosse title in 1891, and then won or shared another twenty-five before the inception of the NCAA tournament in 1971. Since then, the Jays have won nine more crowns (and come in second eight times) for a grand total of, yes, thirty-five. That’s a lot of championships.
Today, the perennial powerhouse was in the unusual role of underdog to Duke in the semifinals of this year’s tournament. Duke crushed Hopkins 17-6 earlier this season—that came during a stretch of 5-straight Hopkins losses—and was the overwhelming favorite coming into the tournament. Hopkins, however, seems to have Duke’s number when it counts. Its last two championships have come at the expense of Duke, in 1-goal games. Today’s contest followed that form. Hopkins was in full command of the more talented Duke team from start to finish. Huge credit goes to coach Dave Pietramala, who patrols the JHU sideline with the same ferocious energy that made him a dominant defensive force for Hopkins during his playing days. Imagine an angry Lawrence Taylor with a 6-foot metal stick: that was “Petro” in his prime. (Pietramala, according to the broadcast, has become best buddies with LT’s old coach, Bill Belichick.) In this game, Hopkins played aggressive, physical defense, and managed the game with patience on precision on offense, holding the run-and-gun Blue Devils in check. Duke’s players were clearly more talented (and the extra year of eligibility their seniors were afforded by the NCAA, due to the non-rape scandal, gave them an extra year to develop physically), and managed to keep the game close when Hopkins showed even the slightest weakness. In the last minute, down two, the Duke goalie abandoned his net, and the team was able to pull within a single goal. But they could not tie it up. The final: 10-9.
On Monday, Hopkins faces Syracuse for the championship. Hopkins-Syracuse is the Yanks-Sox of collegiate lacrosse. In 1989, these two played in a historic final, with Syracuse the 13-12 victors. Pietramala was the star of that Hopkins team, along with goalie Quint Kessenich, now ESPN’s excellent color commentator. Those two may have been the greatest to ever play their positions, but they could not hold down the Syracuse attack, in particular Gary Gait, the Babe Ruth of lacrosse. (During today’s game, when it was suggested that Hopkins midfielder Paul Rabil might be the best ever to play that position, Kessenich immediately corrected the record. It was a nice moment.) So, yes, I’ll be looking forward to Monday’s championship matchup. Go Jays!
For those not interested in lacrosse, I pose this question, which came to me when I was thinking about the exploits of Gary Gait. How many sports have a player who was definitively the greatest in their history, and can you name them? Ruth is the obvious choice for baseball. Basketball has Jordan. Hockey has Gretzky (or is there an argument for Mario?). Lance Armstrong? Does Tiger still have to catch up to the Bear?