Rarely, if ever -- for the winningest program in Division I men's lacrosse history -- would it be surprising to see Johns Hopkins in the national semifinals. Honestly, though, who saw this coming?
On April 5, the Blue Jays fell to Ohio State and suffered their sixth loss in 10 matches. An emotional offseason that saw the passing of a new but beloved teammate. All reasons why Johns Hopkins shouldn't be here.
“Things just weren’t bouncing our way. Life gets that way sometimes,” senior captain Michael Pellegrino said. “(Our attitude afterward was), ‘Just go out and get the next one. Don’t let the previous play determine your attitude on the next play.’
“After Ohio State, it was playoff time. You can’t lose anymore. It was lose and you’re out (of playoff contention). We can’t lose anymore.”
Johns Hopkins, the only unseeded team among the four semifinalists in Philadelphia, has won seven consecutive matches. That includes a Big Ten tournament title, the most lopsided road victory in NCAA tournament history -- 19-7 in the first round over No. 7 Virginia -- and an impressive show of late fortitude in staving off No. 2 Syracuse, 16-15.
That sets up a rematch with in-state rival, No. 6 Maryland.
Even before the season started, Johns Hopkins found itself facing adversity. Freshman Jeremy Huber died suddenly Jan. 26 in his dorm room from pneumonia complicating influenza A, according to the Maryland State Chief Medical Examiner.
"We lost a young man who was a really good person. He was a great young man,” head coach Dave Pietramala said earlier this year in an interview with ESPN. “In a short period of time, he touched a lot of lives. ... It's been the hardest year of my coaching career, and our staff's and our players."
In the locker room, Pellegrino and fellow senior captain Wells Stanwick faced the challenge of trying to galvanize the Blue Jays.
“It’s something that you can’t really describe going into the season, losing somebody’s who’s part of the family,” Pellegrino said. “But we realize to honor his memory wasn’t just to honor him. … We needed to keep going and push toward our goals in remembering him.”
“We really rallied around Jeremy," Stanwick said. "He was an unbelievable kid. When that happened, you start to cherish the little moments a little more because you don’t know when your last game or your practice or your last time hanging out with everyone will be. It reminds you that nothing is guaranteed.”
There have been no guarantees, particularly after the Blue Jays got off to a 4-6 start. Hours after the Ohio State loss, Stanwick and senior goalie and co-captain Eric Schneider set the type of example that often defines championship teams. In this case, it provided the impetus for the most improbable path John Hopkins has ever taken to championship weekend.
“I just tried to start putting in a lot of extra time and getting a lot more guys to do things such as extra shooting, wall ball and watching extra film,” Stanwick said. “All of a sudden, everything started going our way.
“There was a renewed focus that came with it, a sense of urgency, a realization that we could do something special," he said.
Johns Hopkins hasn't been to the national semifinals since 2008, but the rigors of the season’s second half have instilled a sense of championship ambition.
The focus first, however, is on Maryland. Although the Blue Jays scored a 15-12 victory against the Terrapins on April 25, this battle of new Big Ten rivals and longtime intrastate adversaries promises to be every bit as taut and physical as any of their previous encounters.
Having overcome the loss of a teammate and seven consecutive elimination games, Stanwick said Johns Hopkins is up for the challenge.
“People say it’s the best rivalry in lac and it’s pretty special for Maryland, it’s special for Hopkins, and special for the Big Ten,” Stanwick said. “It’s gonna be a great atmosphere in Philly and we’re jacked up to be there.”