This time of year, big games are the norm in North Carolina. While they’re usually indoors on the basketball court, one men’s lacrosse matchup in the February chill this weekend promises to upstage even the heat of the ACC hoops race.
It’s the third consecutive road game to start the season for ninth-ranked Johns Hopkins – in this case, Tobacco Road – as they face their most difficult challenge to date, taking on #4 North Carolina this Saturday Feb. 21 at 2 p.m. in Chapel Hill. The live webcast can be viewed on GoHeelsTV.
To the Blue Jays (2-1), who are coming off a sound 13-10 win over Villanova in snow in Philadelphia after a midweek upset loss in sub-freezing Baltimore, the trip south should feel like a day on Miami Beach after having played three games in eight days to begin the 2015 campaign. They’ll look to reverse a trend that has seen Hopkins lose seven of their last eight matchups against UNC.
By contrast the ACC-leading Tar Heels (3-0) have been getting fat on home-cooking. This will be the fourth of seven straight home games for the team which has outscored opponents 54 to 21. They’ve put up at least 15 goals per game while holding opponents to single digits.
A preseason breakdown by Inside Lacrosse ranked Carolina’s attack unit second in the nation (behind only Syracuse) and both its midfield and defense sixth – at least one notch higher in each category than Hopkins who came in at fifth, eighth, and seventh respectively.
Senior Jimmy Bitter has posted hat tricks in each of his first three games and six points in each of the last two – just a point shy of his career-high. A strong dodger who was selected 22nd by the Ohio Machine in January’s Major League Lacrosse collegiate draft, Bitter leads the team with 10 goals.
Fellow senior and All-American speedster Joey Sankey – the number nine pick of the Charlotte Hounds – has eight tallies. Each has seven assists. Bitter ranks eighth in the nation in points per game (5.67); Sankey 10th (5.00).
Sophomore distributor Luke Goldstock has added seven goals and four assists.
“Quite frankly, they may have the most talent in lacrosse right now,” Johns Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala said. “They’ve got guys playing defensive midfield that would play offense for most schools, guys that are very talented that aren’t playing. So they have an abundance of talent down there and our guys know it. So they’re very well aware of Carolina’s abilities and talents.”
No slouches themselves, the Jays sit in third place in the Big Ten Conference and are led offensively by junior attackman Ryan Brown (Calvert Hall) with 13 goals. Brown, who finished with 40 goals and 14 assists a year ago, owns the nation’s fourth longest active goal-scoring streak at 19 games. Senior Wells Stanwick (Boys Latin) has contributed 11 points including eight assists while his freshman brother Shack (Boys Latin) has five goals and nine points.
While Johns Hopkins ranks 18th in the nation in goals per game (11.35), they’re 17th in assists per game (6.67) and 16th in points per contest (18). The Jays offense shows good ball movement with 58.8 percent of their goals assisted this season. They also fare well at the X, winning 64.6 percent of faceoffs with three effective draw specialists – senior Drew Kennedy (18 of 29, .621), sophomore Kevin O’Toole out of Loyola Blakefield (11 of 15, .733), and freshman Hunter Moreland from Boys Latin (11 of 19, .579).
Like Carolina, the Jays defense has allowed only 21 goals this year, ranking 12th in the nation in scoring defense (7.0). Senior defenseman John Kelly (Bullis) trails only Kennedy in ground balls with eight. Senior short-stick defensive midfielder Phil Castronova (Calvert Hall) has scooped five ground balls and forced a pair of turnovers this season.
The Heels also have a distinct Maryland flavor with ten roster players having prepped in our region – seven in the MIAA. They boast three former Gilman standouts including 6’6”, 230-pound junior SSDM Jake Matthai, redshirt senior middie Duncan Hutchins, and freshman middie William McBride. A trio of Calvert Hall alums also dots the lineup – junior midfielders Evan Connell (long-stick) and Patrick Kelly, and sophomore faceoff specialist Stephen Kelly. Sophomore Brett Bedard (Severn) has also seen significant minutes as a shorty mid.
The connection extends to Carolina’s coaching staff as well which includes ex-Loyola University assistant Dave Metzbower and Johns Hopkins/Severn alum Brian Holman, father of former Tar Heel All-American attackman Marcus Holman.