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Maryland men’s lacrosse team is three wins away from rare perfect season

The Maryland men's lacrosse team is three wins away from completing a perfect season. (Terrance Williams for The Washington Post)
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Maintaining a perfect season was never the pressing issue for the Maryland men’s lacrosse team, nor is it a topic of conversation entering Sunday’s NCAA quarterfinal in Columbus, Ohio.

Instead, it’s simply a matter of maintaining a remarkable level of consistency and contending with a familiar opponent in Virginia (12-3), which spoiled the Terrapins’ chance at an undefeated season with a 17-16 triumph in the 2021 national championship game.

“I think it goes back to what we’ve preached and what we’ve said all year,” defenseman Brett Makar said. “It’s definitely a big statement and saying in our locker room: ‘You’re only as good as your last shift. What have you done for me lately? What can you do for me next?’ ”

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Still, Maryland (15-0) is closing in on a rare accomplishment. Just three times in the past 30 years has the Division I champion gone undefeated, and none has done so since 2006.

Each of those teams — 1997 Princeton, 2005 Johns Hopkins and 2006 Virginia — took its own path to perfection. Of those, only the Tigers of a quarter-century ago were coming off a national title the previous year.

Yet the start of the 1997 season didn’t hint at dominance. Princeton opened with one-goal victories over Johns Hopkins, Virginia and North Carolina, and it scraped out an 8-5 triumph over Brown in its sixth game.

“There was no thought at that point of going undefeated,” said coach Bill Tierney, now the coach at Denver. “It was just survival in those early games. That toughness early probably made us pretty hardened.

“When you win those one-goal games, people on the outside might look at it as destiny or you’re the better team. You look at all those one-goal games, and as a coach, you’re probably looking at it as, ‘We were lucky.’ ”

Those Tigers were also exceptionally good. The centerpieces of Princeton’s dynasty were attackmen Jon Hess, Jesse Hubbard and Chris Massey. All three were juniors in 1997, and they helped the Tigers tear through the back half of the regular season.

Tierney famously implemented a “19-goal rule” in that era, instructing his players to pass the ball around and not shoot to avoid dropping 20 on an opponent. It was not an uncommon development; Princeton scored 19 in four consecutive games late in the 1997 season.

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But then came a rugged first quarter in an eventual quarterfinal defeat of Massachusetts and a two-goal deficit in the fourth quarter before the Tigers ousted Duke in the semifinals. Memorial Day was soggy that year, and the title game was played around 11 a.m. Tierney distinctly remembers sitting down for an early breakfast at the College Park Holiday Inn before his team faced Maryland.

“We know this is going to be a tough game, and I remember one of our players standing up and saying, ‘We haven’t played our best game yet,’ ” Tierney said. “I said, ‘Maybe that’s right, and maybe we’re delusional.’ It kind of gave [us] a whole new season on that day. And then, of course, we go out and score eight goals in the first quarter.”

While Princeton’s 19-7 rout was an anticlimactic end to a sterling run, Johns Hopkins had a fitting finish of its own in 2005: a one-goal defeat of Duke on the last day of the season. It was in many ways all that mattered to those Blue Jays.

Hopkins lost to Virginia in the title game in 2003 and was crushed in the 2004 semifinals by eventual champion Syracuse. A few weeks after the latter loss, midfielder Kyle Harrison sent an email to his teammates describing how much work he intended to invest for his senior year and how he expected the same of everyone else.

Coach Dave Pietramala recalled how it was a struggle to keep his team engaged in the fall.

“Quite honestly, we weren’t interested in the regular season, either,” said Pietramala, whose team played three one-goal games before the tournament. “We wanted to do one thing, and it was to get back to the Final Four, and we were not going to be satisfied until we got back to the Final Four and righted the wrong of the semifinal and righted the wrong of the final.”

The most memorable game of the season wasn’t the Memorial Day defeat of Duke but the 9-8 overtime triumph over Virginia two days earlier. A lightning delay halted play with less than five minutes left, just after Virginia took its first lead of the day, and both teams returned to their locker rooms.

“We walked in, and [captain] Greg Raymond puts on the Village People, and they’re dancing to ‘Macho Man’ or ‘YMCA’ or something like that, and I’m going, ‘What the hell is going on here?’ ” said Pietramala, now the defensive coordinator at Syracuse. “But to be honest, maybe the best thing we did coaching was let them be who they were at that moment.”

It was one of the many times in 2005 when Pietramala trusted his older players to handle matters, and the Blue Jays went on to force overtime on a goal with 1.4 seconds left before advancing with a score in extra time. As vital as that game was for the final stages of Hopkins’s perfect run, it also planted the seed for what was to come at Virginia the next spring.

By the time the Cavaliers’ bus arrived at the since-demolished University Hall late that night, some of their strong personalities were already shaping how the 2006 season would unfold.

“A couple of the older guys wouldn’t let anyone off the bus until they had their say, which essentially was saying, ‘Nothing like this is ever going to happen again,’ ” said then-coach Dom Starsia, who won four NCAA titles at Virginia. “You obviously don’t anticipate that the next season is going to be an undefeated national championship, but that team had a real sense of purpose early on.”

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Now retired as a college coach, Starsia often speaks to teams about the importance of internal leadership while pursuing a championship. Sometimes it takes just one player; he name-checks Tucker Radebaugh (1999), Chris Rotelli (2003) and Bray Malphrus (2011) from his other title runs.

But the list in 2006 was longer: Matt Ward, J.J. Morrissey, Michael Culver and more.

“They were bright and social, but the predominant theme for that team was, ‘Nothing gets in the way of the lacrosse,’ ” Starsia said. “They clamped down on anybody that got near the edge that was going to hurt what we were trying to do. It didn’t have to come from me.”

Then again, there wasn’t much reason to be concerned about a stumble. Aside from a 7-6 victory at Princeton in mid-March, the Cavaliers won the rest of their games by at least four goals. That included a 15-7 rout of Massachusetts in what felt more like a coronation than a national title game.

“I joke to people sometimes that my job in 2006 was to get them to the field on time because they were just not going to be distracted by anything,” Starsia said. “In general, that group was not going to be denied. I don’t think it was because they were obsessed with being undefeated. It’s just that they were obsessed with: ‘This is who we are. Nobody plays with us.’ ”

It’s that Virginia team that feels most analogous to what Maryland has done to this point. These Terps have a burning memory of last year’s disappointment and have dispatched most of their opponents in ruthless, businesslike fashion, meeting a lofty standard in nearly every game, including a 23-12 demolition of the Cavaliers on March 19 at Audi Field.

“That’s the goal, right? Each week, be the best version of yourself, and you hope you execute at a high level, especially with the teams we’re playing against,” Maryland Coach John Tillman said. “I don’t think it’s easy because, you know, inevitably there’s going to be games that you don’t play as well.”

It just hasn’t happened much. The Terps are outscoring opponents by an average of 9.3 goals. They have trailed in just three of their 15 games. Only two opponents, Notre Dame and Ohio State, have put even the slightest scare in them.

But perfection was never the point for Maryland this spring, just like it wasn’t for the other undefeated teams of the past 25 years. Instead, it is the chase to be called a champion, something Maryland can take another step toward Sunday.

“Everyone came back with a purpose and a mission,” Makar said. “There was no victory lap or just having this extra year to have another year of college before going into the real world. It was with a purpose and an intent to get back to where we were last year. We’re just doing everything we can to make it back to that point.”

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