March 12, 2009

By Kevin Scheitrum

He prefers it loud. There’s something about the rolling boil of Orange all around him, the shredding white noise that, despite the cries for blood and bruise and violence, soothes Michael Gvozden.

“I like it when it’s louder, with more people, because then you can’t focus on any one individual calling you out,” he said with a laugh. “You can’t hear the ‘you suck’ from the top of the stands.”

It’s rare he hears them anymore – the You-Suck’s. But for a long time, he did. He acknowledged them and, in the worst conclusion that a goalie can come to, he believed them.

But the continued maturation of Gvozden is one of the biggest reasons to believe that a Johns Hopkins team doubted by many in the beginning of the season – doubts reassured by a 14-8 loss to Princeton at the Face-Off Classic in Baltimore – will make a return trip to Gillette Stadium on Memorial Day Weekend. And, after two wins over top-10 teams last week, Gvozden and the Jays face their toughest test yet, in a showdown with No. 2 Syracuse at the Carrier Dome Saturday.

“[The Dome]’s certainly a challenging place to play,” said Johns Hopkins head coach Dave Pietramala, who goes for his 100th win at Hopkins this weekend. “It’s an exciting place to play. And it’s one where, if we hope to be successful, Mike Gvozden’s gonna have to play well.”

The position of goaltender for Johns Hopkins comes with a great deal of benefits – the two primary being the right to stand in front of organ-crushing rubber balls whipped from the nation’s most fatal pockets and the other being the privilege of taking blame from the bulk of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Area when things go wrong.

He’s gotten good at it. At both things, that is to say. There was a time less than a year ago when he wasn’t very good. At either.

“Michael’s greatest struggle last year was just being himself, and I think occasionally he still fights that,” Pietramala said. “He’s such a good young man and a fine person, he just wants to do whatever he can for the team. Mike’s a happy-go-lucky guy. He smiles. He laughs. He enjoys life. He enjoys getting into goal and seeing shots – I’m not sure why he enjoys that, but he does.”

There was a time when those screams from the crowd, on campus, in papers, on the radio and in message boards – modern life’s answer to the public stoning – would get to him. He’d start believing them. Then the weak goals would follow. And the screams would get louder. And he’d break down.

“The 14 goals [against Princeton] – it was pretty tough to take, but I’ve done it a few times,” Gvozden said said. “I’m not playing to suffice the record books at Hopkins – but it’s tough because when it happened a couple times last year I felt like I was letting the whole world down.”

That feeling dates back to early April of last year. Hopkins had lost five straight games for the first time in program history. The Blue Jays had let up 58 goals in the final four games of that stretch, including 17 to Duke on April 5, among the worst defensive stretches ever seen in the 125 years of Johns Hopkins lacrosse.

The losses weren’t just Gvozden’s fault, certainly. But he was as responsible as any, he’ll admit. In the beginning of the five-game stretch, which saw Hopkins go from 3-0 to 3-5, he played reasonably well, saving more shots than he allowed in two of the first three games, with the only exception coming in a 14-13 overtime loss to eventual champ Syracuse.

But then things started to fall apart. Fast.

In Hopkins’ 13-8 loss to North Carolina on March 29, Gvozen gave up 12 of those goals, stopping only seven shots. Next week, against Duke, he stopped only eight shots, giving up 16.

“I was taking the brunt of [the losing streak] and I really doubted myself,” he said. “I went into the Duke game thinking I was horrible, and look, we turned around and gave up 17 goals. I didn’t necessarily play poorly in those games, but we were losing and in OT. I was a first-time starting goalie and everybody was like ‘he’s awful.’”

“The greatest thing Mike needs to do and continue to do is grow in terms of consistency,” Pietramala said. “That was his greatest weakness a year ago. And from the second half of the season to the end, he became a much more consistent goalie.”

For Gvozden, it was the first time he’d fallen this short of expectations on the field. Over four years of prep lacrosse at Severna Park (Md.), he tallied a save percentage above .700, ending his career as one of the top goalies in the country. And as things went bad, he couldn’t hide. Not on campus. Not at home.

“Coming from an environment where lacrosse is huge, I don’t think when I get home that I can ever have a conversation with somebody without bringing up lax,” he said. “It can be frustrating but it’s also cool at the same time. I guarantee when I go home over the summer, no matter how well I do or bad I do, I’m gonna hear about the Princeton game. It’s whether or not you buy into it. So I’ve stopped playing into what other people say.”

So, he just stopped hiding.

The next nine games, Gvozden tried something. He told himself that he was “a star.” And it’d be easy to say that, Voila, so he was. But there’s not a much more accurate way of putting it.

Over those final nine, of which Hopkins lost only one game, he allowed only 51 goals and stopped 118 shots to post a .736 save percentage. He finished the year with a school-record 1,007.01 minutes in goal, and saved 202 shots, fifth-best in Hopkins history.

“The greatest thing Mike needs to do and continue to do is grow in terms of consistency,” Pietramala said. “That was his greatest weakness a year ago. And from the second half of the season to the end, he became a much more consistent goalie.”

So the reason to believe that the 2009 Hopkins team might catch fire after suffering a jilting loss – Pietramala said he saw a great deal of similarities between Duke in ’08 and Princeton in ’09 – is that as Gvozden starts to warm up in goal, so does the rest of the field.

“He’s one of the most important people on the team and when he gets hot,” said attackman Kyle Wharton, who scored seven goals in the Blue Jay’s two wins last week. “When he gets hot, it motivates our team – motivates our whole defense. We can settle down on offense. He’s one of the best out there – he’s a real fire-starter.”

“He’s grown as a leader and that’s a place where I’ve appreciated his growth,” Pietramala said. “Occasionally a shot goes in and he’ll say, ‘You know what, that’s my fault – I’ll take the blame. … He’ll keep the guys focused and on-task to find out what happened, why it happened and figure out how it doesn’t happen again.”

In Hopkins’ only loss this year, to the Tigers Feb. 28, Gvozden said he lost his own focus. Three days later, against then-No. 6 UMBC, the Blue Jays rallied for a 14-11 win – “we needed to redeem ourselves after that.”

Then, last week, in a game against a top-10 Hofstra team, he made 12 saves and let up only seven. On the other side of the field, Andrew Gvozden, a freshman for the Pride and Mike’s little brother, took the loss.

“I wrote him a letter a while ago,” Gvozden said. “I hit rock bottom and I hit the top last year. I explained to him how to approach it mentally. There are certain things you have to blank out. … It’s like a musician who’s not gonna read what the critics have to say. If you’re not playing well, you might think you’re worse than you are. You have to go into it thinking you’re gonna do an awesome job.”