Even on a chilly weeknight in February, the start of the modern college lacrosse season, and even after a loss in front of a relatively small crowd, Blue Jays senior attackman Jacob Angelus was appreciative for the opportunity to play another 60-minute game on Homewood Field.

“You always wish you could win,” he said, “but playing on that field is great every time. It never gets old.”

When the occasion calls for it, and fans young, old, and in between fill the stands to capacity and line the chain-link fence of the 8,500-person capacity venue, it feels like something special is happening at the storied home of Johns Hopkins lacrosse. On Tuesday night, this wasn’t quite the case; a little more than 1,000 spectators turned out on Valentine’s Day evening and saw visiting North Carolina best the Blue Jays 11-7 in an early-season non-conference game.

But even still, there was more of an energy on — and off — the field than there has been in recent years. At times, the relatively small crowd roared with excitement, like when senior goalie Tim Marcille whipped in a rare empty-net score from about 60 yards to give Hopkins a 4-1 lead in the second quarter.

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“We are playing hard and competing,” Blue Jays third-year coach Peter Milliman said afterward.

It’s been a rough couple of seasons for the New York Yankees of college lacrosse and their legion of passionate alums. But following a pair of losing seasons in 2021 and 2022 — the iconic program’s first consecutive sub-.500 finishes since 1952 and 1953 (and three straight if you count a pandemic-shortened 2-4 campaign in 2020, after which legendary coach Dave Pietramala was dismissed following 20 years) — so far in 2023, the Johns Hopkins men’s lacrosse team has reversed an ugly start to the post-Petro era.

It’s early yet, but these Blue Jays have a 2-1 record and there are undeniable signs of improvement. Last Saturday at home, the Blue Jays beat visiting Georgetown, a preseason top-5 team in several polls, 13-12, by scoring five fourth-quarter goals. Junior attackman Russell Melendez (Archbishop Spalding), a transfer from Marquette, scored four times, and graduate student attackman Garrett Degnon (DeMatha) had a hat trick. The result vaulted the Blue Jays into the top-10 of the major national rankings, a positive direction.

On Tuesday night, Johns Hopkins led 7-5 against No. 19 North Carolina before allowing six straight goals to lose. That’s not great, but much of the outcome had to do with inexperience facing the Tar Heels’ unconventional 10-man ride, which is like a full-court press in basketball. It got the Blue Jays out of sorts.

In a telling third-quarter sequence following a four-minute stretch of defense to begin the second half that ended with a Tar Heels goal, Melendez took a soft shot early in one possession, Hopkins gave up another possession on a failed clear, then graduate student defenseman Alex Mazzone, a Georgetown transfer, took a fastbreak shot that wasn’t backed up and turned possession again back to North Carolina. Despite winning only one third-quarter faceoff, the Tar Heels outshot Hopkins 15-7 in the period to set up the win.

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“They play really fast,” Marcille, who also had 15 saves, said of North Carolina, “and we lost ourselves during the game there.”

These Blue Jays aren’t greenhorns. All of the 11 in the starting lineup Tuesday were juniors or older. Most started regularly last season, except notably a pair at two defensive spots. But for the first time in Milliman’s tenure since replacing Pietramala in April 2020, they’re all getting a taste of being among the game’s elite — a concept not foreign to Johns Hopkins, but lacking in back-to-back 4-9 and 7-9 seasons in Milliman’s first two years, with only two Big Ten wins in each of those campaigns, too.

“Maybe the biggest takeaway in this is an opportunity for growth,” Milliman said. “We have guys that have played some big minutes, but this is the first time that we’ve been the favorite, or at least expected to be competitive in a top-level game in a little while. That may be the biggest element of maturity. We just really need to know how to compete in the top-10 if we want to expect to stay here.”

The next test comes Saturday afternoon, in a noon tilt at crosstown rival No. 12 Loyola (1-0), which also moved up the rankings last week with an upset of then-No. 2 and defending national champion Maryland, which is adjusting to life after graduating many key parts of last year’s team. More jockeying will likely continue over the three-month regular season.

At the top of the northwest bleachers of Homewood Field, running along West University Parkway, eight rectangular placards are spaced equal distances apart, with a half-dozen years listed on most of them. They represent 44 national title seasons since 1891, and the program made multiple final four appearances in every decade of the modern NCAA era except the 2010s.

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Modern times, though, have brought with them a more competitive lacrosse landscape, both on the field and in recruiting. Johns Hopkins’ last men’s lacrosse championship was 16 seasons ago, under Pietramala, the program’s all-time winningest coach and also a Hall of Fame defenseman. After three eight-win seasons in four years, with an NCAA quarterfinal appearance in the other year, Johns Hopkins athletic director Jen Baker hired Milliman to replace Pietramala. It was a controversial move that marked a departure from tradition in one way, was a familiar story of change in another, and spoke to the expectations at Johns Hopkins in all ways.

Milliman, only the 23rd head coach for a program that began in 1883, had no prior connections to Hopkins before being hired, though he did share the same path as Pietramala, being the head coach at Cornell before coming to Baltimore. And now, he’s working on a similar job: bringing the buzz back to Homewood Field.

These Blue Jays are getting there.

Games of the Week

Looking ahead, aside from the aforementioned Charles Street rivalry between Johns Hopkins and Loyola, another big game to watch is when now No. 4 Maryland (1-1) hosts No. 16 Syracuse (3-0) at 1 p.m. Saturday (Big Ten+). It’s the first time the Orange have played a regular season game in College Park since 1983.

On Friday, the No. 2 Maryland women (1-0) will, conversely, be in Central New York playing at No. 4 Syracuse (1-0). That game starts at 3 p.m. and can be viewed on ACC Network Extra.

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Parting Shot

Marcille’s goal, according to the team, is believed to be the first by a Johns Hopkins goalie since March 18, 1986, when Stuart Jones scored in the third quarter of a 16-10 win at Washington College.

The goalie goal is a rare event, making it all the more remarkable that Marcille didn’t initially remember the strike when asked about it after the game. “I completely forgot I scored,” he said.

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What was he thinking on the goal?

“They started respecting my passes more, spreading out a bit more,” Marcille said, alluding to North Carolina players’ spacing in its full-field ride. Ultimately, that led to Tar Heels goalie Collin Krieg leaving his net.

“So I just shot it,” Marcille said.

Corey McLaughlin is a veteran writer and editor who has covered sports in Baltimore for a decade, including for Baltimore magazine, USA Lacrosse Magazine and several other publications.

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