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What’s Eating Johns Hopkins?

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Hopkins lost badly in the NCAA Tournament. Again.

NCAA Lacrosse: Semifinals - Johns Hopkins Blue Jays vs. Maryland Terrapins Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

A few days ago Notre Dame defeated Johns Hopkins 16-9 in a rainy game at Arlotta Stadium. The game wasn’t especially close, as the Fighting Irish jumped out to a 6-1 first quarter lead and went into halftime up 10-2 on the Blue Jays. Aside from a brief moment when Hopkins cut the deficit to four goals, Notre Dame never let JHU get within five in the second half.

The Hopkins defeat was part of a horrific trifecta for me on Sunday night. Obviously the Jays lost, which was not ideal, but the Sixers also lost in Game 7 in Toronto on a last-second shot by Kawhi Leonard at pretty much the same exact time the JHU vs. Notre Dame game ended. Then on top of both of those disappointments, Veep had its series finale about a half hour later that evening as well.

The Sixers loss was difficult because it was reminiscent of former Toronto Blue Jays great Joe Carter’s blast in Game 6 of the 1993 World Series to defeat the Philadelphia Phillies, a particularly traumatic moment for all Philly sports fans. Losing Veep forever was really bad for me personally, as it was easily my favorite show over the last eight years and it felt like I was losing a really good friend.

But I felt something a little different with the Hopkins loss. I was definitely dejected watching Hopkins go into halftime down 10-2 on their way to being unceremoniously bounced from the NCAA Tournament. However, there was also a discomforting "oh no, not again" feel to the game after the first quarter, as getting blown out or horrendously poor starts to games in the NCAA Tournament has sort of become the norm at Hopkins ever since the Jays last played for a national title against Syracuse back in 2008.

Please don’t be mistaken, this is not some shrill, reactionary screed trying to #FirePetro. My love for JHU’s head coach is well-documented. Additionally, I am well aware that the seasons since JHU’s last trip to Memorial Day Monday would be considered glory years for all but a handful of other programs.

Since Hopkins last played for the national title in 2008, the Jays have made the NCAA Tournament ten times, only missing it in 2013, they’ve reached the Elite 8 six times, won the Big Ten Tournament twice, and made it to one Final Four (2015). If Petro had done that at Harvard or Rutgers over the last eleven years, they’d have built him a statue by now.

I don’t mean to say that to belittle Harvard or Rutgers. I just mean to say that consistently making it into the NCAA Tournament in Division I men’s lacrosse, let alone reaching the Final Four, is very difficult. Indeed, the Crimson & Scarlet Knights have played lacrosse for a combined 273 years and have made the NCAA Tournament a combined 11 times, 2014 & 2004 being the last year for Harvard & Rutgers, respectively.

Penn State has only made the NCAA Tournament five times in its history and last Sunday’s win over UMBC was the Nittany Lions first ever victory in the big dance, and they’ve had a team since 1913. Being consistently good enough to make the NCAA Tournament year in and year out, is not an easy task.

Nevertheless, for good or for worse, Hopkins isn’t one of those programs or any other program for that matter. JHU men’s lacrosse is sui generis and making the NCAA Tournament isn’t the goal. Winning rings is the prime directive. But I am not an unreasonable alum. I am well aware that winning a title every year in a world with an expanded NCAA Tournament and 73 teams in Division I (with more on the way) is not really feasible.

Moreover, not winning a championship since 2007 isn’t really the main point of this post. My complaint isn’t the lack of JHU titles since 2007 or what round of the NCAA Tournament they’ve lost in since they last made it to Memorial Day Monday in 2008. Obviously, I’d love for Hopkins to win the title every year, but my real concern is that over the last 11 years, more often than not, when Hopkins loses in the NCAA Tournament they lose in spectacular fashion or fail to show up until the second half when the game is nearly out of reach.

Now I am obviously not talking about losing to Maryland in the 2015 Final Four. That was a great game and JHU was in it until the last shot. I am not even talking about 2014, when Duke beat JHU 19-11, but Hopkins fought valiantly and were giving the Blue Devils some problems before Duke rallied in the fourth quarter.

No, what I am talking about is the fact that Hopkins didn’t show up until the third quarter of this year’s NCAA Tournament loss to Notre Dame, or how the squad only scored three first half goals versus Duke in last year’s NCAA Tournament loss, in a game that didn’t feel nearly as close as the 14-9 score would indicate.

Hopkins got smoked in 2017 by a score of 19-6 at home by the same Blue Devils. The Brown Bears absolutely smashed JHU in the First Round of the 2016 NCAA Tournament, beating the Jays 17-8. Hopkins didn’t make the 2013 NCAA Tournament, but the Jays suffered an egregiously ugly 18-5 loss to the Blue Devils in 2010 and the 2009 NCAA Tournament defeat to Virginia wasn’t any better, as Hopkins lost in a bloodbath 19-8.

Even in 2011 & 2012, when Hopkins had two of its best regular seasons in recent years, Hopkins got choked out by Maryland in the 2012 Elite 8 game, losing 11-5 and Denver straight up took Hop’s lunch money in 2011’s Elite 8 game, beating the 3rd seeded Blue Jays 14-9 on their way to the Final Four.

Now, I don’t have a hot take for these losses (aside from getting rid of the face-off, seriously, enough is enough). Frankly, it’s kind of baffling. The Hopkins team that took Penn State to overtime in the best game of 2019 less than two weeks ago, didn’t show up on Sunday night until the third quarter and by then the Jays were down 8. I don’t know if it was the rain last Sunday, having to travel to South Bend, allowing Notre Dame to use ACC refs for the game some missed calls by the refs, or maybe everyone was studying for finals the night before, but last Sunday was another disheartening NCAA Tournament loss in a string of them over the last decade or so.

It’s undeniable that some Hop fans and alums are extremely unhappy with the program’s performance overall and in the NCAA Tournament over the last decade. Indeed, the only thing hotter than King’s Landing on Sunday night was the JHU Fan Lax thread.

It would be easy for me to wave away these NCAA Tournament losses that I highlighted above. The one thing I love to do is putting things, especially Hopkins losses, into context. Indeed, that 2009 Hopkins team overachieved in their Elite 8 run, as the team suffered massive losses from the legendary class of 2008. Moreover, UVA was still in Peak-Starsia in 2009, so losing badly to the Cavs that year was understandable, as they were still probably a bit bitter from the 2005 Final Four loss to the Jays.

Additionally, Hopkins did run into a few really good Duke teams over the last decade, teams that had motivation to run up the score after JHU blocked the Blue Devils from titles in 2005 & 2007, and also beat them in the Final Four in 2008.

Moreover, that 2016 Brown team was a once in a century team for that program and the Jays were just out-gunned and on the road.

See, that was really easy. I just explained away most of JHU’s worst NCAA Tournament losses since 2008 and it took me five seconds. However, even those valid defenses can’t totally hide the fact that there does seem to be a disturbing trend.

It’s not the coaching, as I think Petro is still one of the best coaches & recruiters in the game. I don’t think it is talent, as Hop repeatedly brings in top recruiting classes (i.e. Joey Epstein). I don’t believe it is effort, as the lads were giving it their all on Sunday night. But even though I am assured in the state of the program and its future, I can’t help but notice that last Sunday Richmond (a well coached and talented team but a program that doesn’t have the resources or roster that Hopkins does) gave Duke a better game in the month of May than Hopkins has given the Blue Devils in the last 10 years.

Maybe it's just a coincidence or an unfortunate run of bad match-ups, but something seems to be eating Hopkins when it comes to the NCAA Tournament. I hope they kick the habit soon, because these losses are starting to become the new normal which is really bad for the brand.