By Nelson Coffin

Maybe it's happened to you. You have a friend, or a classmate, or it could be a sibling, who just flat-out steals your thunder by doing something you do extremely well, even better than you. There's nothing you can do about it, except to live in the proverbial shadow. You can resent it or thrive on it. Benson Erwin thrived on it and that mentality was probably the intangible that made the difference for Hopkins at the 2005 final four.

Benson's best buddy, confidante and longtime teammate from their days together at the Friends School of Baltimore is Johns Hopkins' midfielder Kyle Harrison, the 2005 Tewaaraton Award winner, two-time First-Team All-American and top overall pick (by New Jersey) in the Major League Lacrosse draft. This man casts a shadow like a Charleston shade tree.

Yet Harrison's unintentionally giant shadow was a good cover for the low-key Erwin, an important but relatively obscure cog in a talented Blue Jay engine that fueled a dozen consecutive regular season wins capped by a 4-0 postseason run. In fact, one gets the feeling that Erwin was more than comfortable being a role player for the undefeated 2005 national champions while Harrison basked in well-deserved adulation from Hopkins fans, an adoring press and grateful teammates.

It was like that in high school, as well. While most rival coaches, naturally, game-planned to stop Harrison, sometimes Erwin would make them sweat for paying less attention to him. In a hard-fought victor over Calvert Hall in the Maryland interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference, for instance, Erwin posted two goals and a whopping eight assists for the Quakers.

Still, when it came time to make a college choice four years ago, Erwin, who grew up in Baltimore's Tuscany-Canterbury neighborhood, just a short walk from Homewood Field, cast his lot with his best buddy and the Blue Jays.

Erwin knew that, in many respects, he would still be an understudy to Harrison, whose lightning-quick first step, slithery moves and rocket shot made him the talk of an exceptional recruiting class. Erwin, on the other hand, despite being an inch taller and 15 pounds heavers than the 6-foot, 185-pound Harrison, was considered to be a good "get," if not a show stopper.

He would be the first to admit, his game had limitations that would restrict him to the defensive midfield, despite superb speed, savvy and instincts for a sport he began playing in youth leagues while still in middle school.

There was that one critical aspect of lacrosse that Erwin was still lacking.

"My stick skills aren't that great," Erwin admitted.

Yet, as a defensive specialist who can motor, his handle was good enough to ignite plenty of fastbreaks for the Jays, who mowed down Marist and UMass on their way to the NCAA Division I final four in Philadelphia.

And that ability to get up and down the field would make him, for one day at least, a lacrosse hero whose name would be repeated numerous times on ESPN's Sports Center after the act itself was shown live on ESPN2. For a day, maybe the most televised day in lacrosse history to date, Benson Erwin was the most famous person in the game. If history is any barometer, there are tons of little kids all over the country looking up lacrosse on the web for the first time (Welcome!) thinking that, if they learn more, practice hard and get good, someday, they might be Benson Erwin. Erwin himself might attribute that to being at the right place at the right time, but that's how history works.

As more than 45,000 fans at the Lincoln Financial Center watched, Erwin took center stage in a pulsating NCAA semifinal victory over Virginia with a shot that neither he, nor the Blue Jay faithful, will soon forget.

After Most Outstanding Player and Hopkins goalie Jesse Schwartzman collected a save in OT, his outlet pass found star freshman middle Paul Rabil, who sprinted into the Wahoo box. Erwin, trailing the play by a few yards, then found himself on destiny's doorstep.

"Paul got me that ball and I realized nobody was on me," Erwin said. "I was fortunate to get the ball. Honestly, it was a lucky shot. I closed my eyes and shot it. It was surreal."

But it was very real. It was far too real for the 'Hoos to grasp what, or who, had hit them after the 9-8 setback was in the books and white jerseys were celebrating over their sunken frames.

As unusual as it might be for a shortstick defender to win a game in overtime, it couldn't be totally unexpected, either. That's because Erwin closed the season on a tear. He scored as many goals (4) in a searing five-game stretch leading up to the title game than he had in his previous 55 contests for the Jays.

Having a defender of this caliber develop this sudden offensive attitude had to make rival coaches nervous. When Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala had Erwin in the game on a ball stall, up one goal and two men, with just over a minute remaining, and Duke was doubling Harrison and freshman phenom Kevin Huntley, the Blue Devils' Mike Pressler had to fear the shot of Erwin after Saturday's events. But don't think for a minute that anyone scouted that scenario a week earlier or that anyone on the stellar Duke man-down unit had studied the book on Erwin. Not with Harrison, Rabil, Huntley, Matt Rewkowski, Peter LeSueur, Kyle Barry, Jake Byrne and Greg Peyser as more likely shooters in any scenario.

Doesn't every shortstick look over his shoulder, waiting to be yanked, when the ball moves into the offensive end of the field? Pietramala, though, learned to lengthen the leash after watching Erwin's unselfish play during a stellar career. Erwin earned the right to take key shots, according to his coach.

"He's been a warrior for four years," Pietramala said. "Benson has shown his maturity by making good decisions and it showed."

In the semi-final and the final Pietramala used Erwin in the crucial moments ending the game, not to take the last shot, but to prevent the worst from happening if a turnover should occur. The coach was asked why he had the country's best d-middie in the game on offense at the end of a close championship. His answer was simple, "I was playing my best 6 guys".

Erwin's prime-time maneuver was not the reason his stock, which is definitely rising, has always been highly regarded.

Just ask the MLL's Baltimore Bayhawks. They drafted Georgetown's First-Team All- America longstick Brodie Merrill and then, with a surprising trade, took Erwin, also in the first round, to shore up their defense for a title run this summer.

"We've been tracking him all year," said Jay Pivec, the 'Hawks general manager. "In the MLL, a defender has to be able to play offense, too. And Benson's really good at that."

Erwin's first meeting with Harrison as an opponent will occur when Harrison's New Jersey Pride visits the Bayhawks on July 23. In all likelihood, Erwin's assignment will be covering Harrison.

By that time, most everybody else will probably know what Harrison discovered a long time ago: It's easier to be a good player and a good team when Benson Erwin is on your side than when he's against you.

Photos by E-Lax Staff and John Strohsacker

June 11, 2004


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