There were a few groans when the Maryland men’s lacrosse players learned the team was eschewing the NCAA’s offer of taking an airplane to the NCAA quarterfinals in Foxborough, Mass., last weekend and instead would make the 400-plus mile trip by bus.
Then they heard the reason. The NCAA allots travel money for the 32-member playoff roster, plus an extra 10 spots for coaches and staff members. But first-year Coach John Tillman and his assistants thought the entire team deserved to make the trip — a travel party of around 60.
“Coach Tillman said, ‘I don’t care if I have to pay for this out of my own pocket. We’re a team, everyone is going, we’re taking two buses,’ ” senior co-captain Dan Burns said. “When you have a coach who, rather than just saying you’re a team actually means it, who does the extra things. . . . We thought it was pretty cool.”
It meant the entire team witnessed Maryland’s 6-5 overtime victory over top-seeded Syracuse. The Terrapins (12-4) will face defending national champion Duke (14-5) in an NCAA semifinal on Saturday at 6:30 p.m. at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.
Maryland is the only unseeded team to have advanced to the semifinals.
“We relish the role of the underdog,” Tillman said. “I don’t think it’s unique to our team. It’s pretty consistent to the University of Maryland. Look at Gary Williams, the fire and passion he coached with and his teams played with.”
An underdog role is not new to Tillman either.
He was a three-year starting goalie at Corning West High School in New York in the late-1980s. When he arrived at Cornell for college, however, it already had an all-conference goalie.
So Tillman played midfield as a freshman, defense as a sophomore and junior and midfield again as a senior.
He has asked his players to embrace similarly diverse roles. Senior Travis Reed, an expected starting attackman, has been slowed by a significant shoulder injury he sustained in March. His new role is as an extra-man specialist: Against Syracuse, in less than three minutes of playing time, Reed had a goal and an assist.
Reed’s teammates, recognizing he has sacrificed playing time for the better of the team, went wild on the sideline after both of his contributions.
“They are playing with a lot of [emotion] right now,” said Mike Farrell, a letterman on the 1975 Maryland team that won the program’s last national title and the father of Brian Farrell, a fifth-year senior and longstick midfielder. “The guys saw what [the coaches] are doing for them, the little things. . . . They just needed that spark to ignite a fire.”
Not that the road has been easy. Tillman made an immediate impression during the first workout of the fall. The team ran a series of 300-yard sprints and, at the end, Burns said they had started to congratulate themselves on finishing the workout.
“And Coach Tillman said, ‘Okay, see you back here at 5 a.m. tomorrow,’ ” Burns said. “He said not everyone had touched the line, and we were coming back until everyone touched the line.
“That’s one of the things we said in the locker room before playing Syracuse: ‘This is a touch-the-line game. Everyone touch the line.’ We believe in the little things [Tillman] is teaching us, they are making a difference.”
That work ethic was evident in Tillman’s 12-year stint as an assistant at Navy.
Friends recall stopping by Tillman’s house in the wee hours after Navy defeated Army in 2006, expecting to join a celebration. They found Tillman studying film of Navy’s next opponent.
His eye for detail includes the play that led to the winning goal against Syracuse. Tillman said he remembered it having worked for Navy five years ago — against Maryland.
“I’m really enjoying watching John on the sideline,” Farrell said. “He is watching the game 100 percent and is constantly in the flow and making adjustments. . . . This is only going to grow and get better and better.”