Johns Hopkins senior defender Kirsti Paavola quickly tracked back to disrupt a counter-attack against Penn State and its high-powered offense.
After the Blue Jays forced a key turnover, the Notre Dame Prep grad ran into an open space to retrieve a pass from goalie Caroline Federico to help set a counter-attack. That sequence underscored how Paavola anchors the Blue Jays and their stout defense, which thrives on holding opponents to fewer than 10 goals per game.
Paavola's steady rise in the program and leadership skills prompted teammates to name her as one of two captains this season. Paavola has embraced that honor, and she can often be heard from the sidelines, yelling encouragement throughout a game.
"It was awesome," Paavola said about being named captain. "It's something I never imagined coming in. Even during my freshman and sophomore years, I was kind of an underdog. So, coming out my junior year and getting that starting spot finally, I still didn't imagine I would be captain by my senior year. It's a great honor, and I absolutely love everyone on the team and representing them."
Johns Hopkins is looking to maintain its lockdown attitude after allowing just 7.44 goals per game last year. Paavola was a main catalyst for that success, starting 18 games and gathering 25 ground balls -- third best on the team. She also won 11 draws and caused 11 turnovers.
Those solid numbers marked a steady progression for Paavola, who has gotten better each year since graduating from NDP in 2012, when she was named to the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland All-Conference team -- a league widely regarded as the most talented in the nation.
After playing in four games as a freshman, Paavola saw action in 11 matches the following year. That led to a breakout junior year during which she became one of the anchors of the Blue Jays' defense.
"My whole game has absolutely changed," Paavola said. "It's much faster in college. I had all of my coaches working with me. Defense is a lot different in college, especially with learning how to slide and keep up with the attackers who are much quicker and much faster."
This season, she has excelled again in keeping the defense organized and focusing on executing the game plan. She also makes sure her teammates are cognizant of their assignments with matching up with the opposing attack.
"I've always been one of the more vocal people on the team," Paavola said. "This year, I definitely upped the ante a little bit because that's what the defense needs, especially when there's a silence. Sometimes, you just need someone to say, ‘That was great, but let's fix this or adjust it.' Other times, you have to say, ‘Guys, it's not OK. We have to do better.'"
The game against nationally ranked Penn State March 2 was the first against four future Big Ten opponents for Johns Hopkins this season. The Nittany Lions managed an 11-7 victory. Johns Hopkins, however, dominated Rutgers, 14-2, Feb. 21 before falling to Ohio State, 8-7, March 5.
The Blue Jays were members of the American Lacrosse Conference for 13 years before going independent in 2015 and then decided to join the Big Ten starting in 2017. Johns Hopkins head coach Janine Tucker said the program purposely scheduled those Big Ten opponents to get ready for conference play.
"We want to kind of ease into that scheduling for next year," Tucker said. "They are great teams. We are used to playing those types of teams when we were with the ALC. So, to be honest, it was a method to the madness."
While Johns Hopkins will open conference play without Paavola next season, she is helping lay the groundwork for a successful foundation. Paavola has also played a key role in the development of Federico, who took over the starting job in goal this season with the graduation of standout KC Emerson.
Paavola said Federico has embraced the starting role.
"She definitely wasn't nervous," Paavola said. "She's been ready for this. I always go up to her after big plays and tell her that she is doing awesome or after a bad play just letting her know we are fine and she is fine. She is kind of like me and is one of the more vocal people. So, she had no problem coming in."
One of the keys for the Blue Jays' success is the strong bond among the players. Paavola said this year's group is especially close.
"We are constantly together -- non-stop," Paavola said. "I think it's impossible to walk through campus and not see five of us together. It's never just one of us by ourselves."
Paavola's leadership skills also transfer off-the-field. She is an economics major and has already landed a job at financial-service firm Morgan Stanley in Baltimore.
That success is no surprise to Tucker. Coaches and players alike rely on Paavola's lacrosse acumen.
"She is my quarterback," Tucker said. "She is a very calming force on defense. She makes the right reads, and she is in the right spot at the right time. She is a very important piece of our defense, because she knows how to keep everyone together and keep everybody in a good place. So, it's really important to have her out on the field."
Big Ten opponents, however, are just one of several challenges Johns Hopkins faces with one of the nation's most difficult schedules, which also includes Stanford, Georgetown, Towson and Boston College.
"If you want to be a top team, that's just the way it is," Tucker said. "You're playing every couple of days, and you're trying to build as much as you can on each game. This group is still learning some critical components, and we are going to keep plugging away."
While Paavola commands the defense, fellow captain and senior Dene' DiMartino and junior Haley Schweizer control the midfield. DiMartino, a New York native, started all 18 games last season and led the Blue Jays in points (52), goals (40), draw controls (58), free-position goals (12) and game-winning goals (four), earning third-team Intercollegiate Women's Lacrosse Coaches Association All-American honors.
"Both Kirsti and Dene' have a tremendous passion for the game," Tucker said. "They play hard."
DiMartino and Schweizer are among the 50 women's players named to the 2016 Tewaaraton Award Watch List, which goes to the nation's best player. Schweizer, a Delaware native, started 18 games last season and finished with 28 goals, 27 ground balls, 29 draws and 19 caused turnovers.
Issue 219: March 2016