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The faceoff specialist behind Maryland lacrosse’s dominant season

Luke Wierman, the Big Ten specialist of the year, has had a standout junior season at Maryland, winning Wierman 65.4 percent of his faceoffs. (Taylor McLaughlin/Maryland Athletics)
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A perfect season for the Maryland men’s lacrosse program hinged on these 10.8 seconds. The Terrapins had just scored to climb within a goal of tying Virginia in the waning moments of last year’s national championship game. Luke Wierman prepared to take the faceoff with two of the team’s best offensive players waiting in the wings.

At the climax of the season, “you kind of have to forget everything,” Wierman said, “because if you don’t, you’re going to let it get to you.” He remembers feeling confident, thinking methodically about what would happen next. He would win the faceoff. Maryland would score. And the Terps would have a chance to win in overtime. “Everything’s going to be all right,” Wierman told himself.

As the frenzied final play began, Wierman won the faceoff and sprinted toward the goal, with those few remaining seconds ticking away. Wierman launched a shot, and the Cavaliers’ goalkeeper made the save with his torso. Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration” soon became the soundtrack behind Virginia’s joy and Maryland’s heartbreak and for the moments a stunned Wierman sat on the turf.

A year later, when asked about dealing with the disappointment, Wierman said, “I get that question a lot.” After the 2021 season, his family traveled to Colorado for a white-water rafting trip, which gave him some distance from that game and the sport. He said his teammates helped him move forward, and amid the business of another season, it’s easy to let what’s ahead consume his thoughts instead. But there’s no way to fully forget — not a moment that big.

“That can be traumatic for a guy, or you can use it to a way where: ‘You know what? I’m going to use this to make myself better and I’m going to be motivated and I’m going to be inspired by it,’ ” Maryland Coach John Tillman said. “And I feel like that’s what happened with Luke.”

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Wierman rebounded with a standout junior season, becoming one of the nation’s most dominant faceoff specialists. He wins 65.4 percent of his attempts, the second-best mark in Division I — a key reason the top-seeded Terps (14-0) have thrived and enter their opening NCAA tournament game against Vermont on Sunday with hopes of a national title run. Wierman, the Big Ten specialist of the year, already has broken Maryland’s single-season record with 236 faceoff wins.

“I think none of us could have predicted that Luke had evolved as much as he has,” Tillman said of Wierman, who shared playing time at his position in 2021.

Wierman started taking faceoffs as a way to get on the field while in high school in West Chester, Pa. He initially signed with Fairfield University but reconsidered when the school’s coach, Andy Copelan, stepped down. Copelan vouched for Wierman, telling Tillman that if Maryland needed a faceoff specialist, he knew of one looking for a new school. Tillman saw Wierman as someone with upside because he had played all over the field in high school and would now focus solely on faceoff duties.

When Wierman arrived at Maryland, he remembers how fast the game seemed to move, and he had never encountered such intense, detailed preparation. It took time to adjust, and he didn’t play as a freshman during the shortened 2020 slate. Entering the 2021 season, Tillman’s staff searched for a second faceoff specialist to complement Justin Shockey. The coaches had a player in mind, but Wierman emerged instead.

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“Some guys need to get it right away or they kind of lose their focus,” Tillman said. “All Luke’s done is try to invest more, and it's just been so awesome to see. He's taken a step each year.”

Wierman enjoyed that shared role because he said he “could ease into it a little bit.” Shockey took 250 faceoffs, winning 51.2 percent, and Wierman had 192 attempts with a 45.3 percentage. Shockey handled the bulk of the attempts at the start of the year, then Wierman came in for a four-game stretch. The Terps rode Shockey through most of the postseason. Wierman only took one faceoff in the national semifinal, and he entered the championship game knowing his teammate would start. But when Shockey struggled early, Maryland turned to Wierman — all the way through the game’s final possession.

Carroll Kennedy, the team’s volunteer assistant coach, arrived in College Park this offseason, and he works with the faceoff specialists. He said he has never talked with Wierman about that national championship game. But he mentioned that Wierman plays a position that is the closest to a true one-on-one matchup that lacrosse has to offer. Learning to push letdowns out of mind is key, and Wierman stays even-keeled.

As this season approached, Kennedy saw Wierman trending in a positive direction, so maybe this breakout isn’t surprising, he said. Wierman kept adding new facets to his game to keep opponents guessing. Tillman saw Wierman’s confidence grow through last season. With Shockey’s departure, Wierman said he knew he needed “to work hard to be that guy that we can rely on.”

Each season, Tillman expects his group to weather ups and downs. He says that’s an inevitability. But trailing against Ohio State in mid-April (before five straight goals in the fourth quarter put the Terps comfortably ahead) is one of the only times Maryland hasn’t been the superior team from start to finish this season. Wierman is part of the reason for that. A dominant faceoff man can “mask” mistakes, Tillman said, and about two-thirds of the time, Wierman secures possession for the nation’s most prolific offense at 18.4 goals per game.

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“​​There’s a reason why the offense does that well and the defense doesn't have to play as much,” Tillman said. “It's incredible. … Last year, we were trying to get to 50 percent [at the faceoff], and now if we’re 50 percent, we’re disappointed.”

When Maryland opened the postseason with a Big Ten semifinal matchup against Johns Hopkins, Wierman had his worst performance of the year. He secured only 10 of 22 faceoffs in a 16-11 win, just the second time all season he has dipped below a 50 percent success rate. Wierman left the game disappointed — and motivated.

Wierman rebounded two days later with his best outing of the season, winning 20 of 26 faceoffs in Maryland’s commanding 17-7 victory over Rutgers in the Big Ten championship game.

For Wierman, the entire season has been an extended response. Games depend on 60 minutes, not 10.8 seconds. But national championships are remembered for how they end. And now, finally, Wierman and the Terps have an opportunity to provide an emphatic answer in the NCAA tournament.

“I think it just gives us all motivation,” Wierman said, “really being that close to something we worked so hard for and sacrificed a lot for.”

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