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With Dante Trader Jr., the Terps have a lacrosse star starting at safety

The Terps will host SMU at 7:30 p.m. Eastern on Saturday (Fox Sports 1)

Maryland defensive back Dante Trader Jr. chose to play spring football and missed out on the lacrosse season. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Dante Trader Jr. shared a couch at home with his father as they watched the Maryland men’s lacrosse team cap its historic season with a national title. Trader dissected the game like a coach, his high lacrosse IQ shining through even in his role as an observer. And then the texts started to roll in, asking how badly he missed the sport or reminding him that he could have been on that field celebrating with the trophy.

Lacrosse, the sport for which Trader initially committed to the Terrapins, turned out to be the one he didn’t play during his first year on campus. Instead, he spent the spring with the football program preparing for his sophomore season. Once a prized lacrosse recruit, Trader gave up his freshman season in favor of Terps football, the team that came calling later in his high school career.

“It’s probably one of the hardest decisions that he’s dealing with right now,” Trader’s dad said.

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Trader had never before needed to choose. He ascended to a top-10 lacrosse prospect nationally while playing football each fall. It was a difficult but viable balancing act. Often, he would go to a field and work through football drills, then play wall ball for lacrosse. Trader planned to compete at Maryland in both sports — and still hopes to eventually — but this past winter, he had to decide between the lacrosse season and spring football practices that serve as critical learning time for a young player.

Trader’s dad reminded his son: Maryland probably would win a Big Ten men’s lacrosse title. (The Terps did.) And the team would be in contention for a national championship.

“That’s two rings in one year,” Trader’s dad said. “That’s hard to turn down.”

But Trader saw an opportunity on Coach Michael Locksley’s team. Both of Maryland’s starting safeties, Nick Cross and Jordan Mosley, departed after last season, and Trader had a chance to climb up the depth chart. He knew spring practices would help him do so.

By the time Maryland’s season opener arrived, Trader felt antsy and excited. He visualized every moment on the field unfolding exactly as planned, and he had a bit of trouble falling asleep that Friday night. Against Buffalo, he stepped onto the field as a starter, and he remains in the top spot on the depth chart entering the Terps’ third game of the season Saturday night against Southern Methodist.

“I had to sacrifice not playing lacrosse my first year to do that,” Trader said of earning the job.

Trader and fellow first-time starter Beau Brade are an untested partnership at safety, and they’re tasked with improving a passing defense that struggled last season. The Terps’ offense has proved to be prolific and well rounded. The defense will determine how complete this team can be.

Trader is young but confident, and “he has some alpha in him,” defensive coordinator Brian Williams said. Trader surged into a leadership position because of those qualities, and Locksley wants his teams to be strong down the center, from nose guard to middle linebacker to safety.

“Dante’s not one of those guys that’s afraid to call out a teammate — older, younger, it doesn’t matter — if they’re not necessarily living up to our standard,” Locksley said. “And to me, if we continue to have a lot of guys like Dante Trader, we’ll continue to build this program to win championships.”

Not long ago, Trader assumed he wouldn’t play football in college or beyond. He felt content with the expected trajectory in his primary sport, which he initially began when his dad let him choose between lacrosse and tee-ball. From watching his older sister play softball, Trader thought the alternative would be slow and boring, his dad said, so he turned to a lacrosse stick.

By the end of middle school, Trader had gone on an unofficial visit to see Maryland’s campus and talk with Coach John Tillman. The Delmar, Del., native traveled 2½ hours twice a week to play lacrosse with the Madlax program, spending more time in the car than on the field. After Trader’s sophomore year, his club coach reached out to Andy Hilgartner, the lacrosse coach at McDonogh, to tell him that Trader was interested in transferring to a D.C.- or Baltimore-area school for a more competitive lacrosse experience. Hilgartner remembers the coach describing Trader, a midfielder, as a “special” player and “one of the most phenomenal kids I’ve ever coached.” Hilgartner knew he wanted to get Trader on McDonogh’s campus for a visit.

The football staff learned of Trader’s two-sport background, so McDonogh defensive backs coach Marcus Wilson watched some of Trader’s lacrosse games the summer before his junior year. Wilson noticed speed, agility and vision that made Trader an intriguing football prospect.

“He was a lacrosse guy first in our book,” Wilson said. But the football coaches thought, “We’ll take a chance on this kid.”

Trader had the skill in lacrosse to essentially go to any college program he wanted, Hilgartner said. Just a few days after Sept. 1, when college coaches can contact juniors in high school, Trader committed to Tillman’s program.

And then he had a breakout football season.

His performances improved every week. The football coaches believed he could have a future in this sport, too. Trader competed with and against some of the nation’s best recruits, gradually affirming that he belonged on that tier.

As a wide receiver, Trader showcased his ability as a “tough kid, breaking tackles, making plays out of nothing,” Wilson said. On the defensive end, Trader meticulously studied film, knew the plays opponents would run out of certain formations and developed into a strong open-field tackler. In one season — Trader didn’t get to play football as a senior because of the pandemic — he “changed the DB room at McDonogh,” Wilson said.

Locksley offered Trader a football scholarship, and by the end of his junior season, Trader had committed to play both sports for the Terps.

There’s carry-over between the two sports: Navigating contact and constant decision-making in lacrosse, Hilgartner said, helps Trader in football. Tillman has had former high school football players on his roster. Terps lacrosse star Jared Bernhardt earned the Tewaaraton Award, then won a national championship as a Division II quarterback at Ferris State and is now on the Atlanta Falcons’ roster as a wide receiver.

Does Trader have a favorite sport? “That’s the reason I was playing two,” Trader said, “because I love both of them equally.”

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He misses lacrosse and still hopes to play for the Terps. Trader doesn’t want to publicly commit to a definitive answer, instead saying “there’s a good chance” he will compete for Tillman someday. Trader hasn’t played lacrosse in a while, and his goal would be to serve as an “extra player to an already great dynasty.”

Trader didn’t attend lacrosse games in College Park last spring, opting to watch on TV instead, “because it kind of killed me not to play,” he said.

Trader has told Hilgartner that he plans to work out with McDonogh’s lacrosse team during winter break after Maryland’s football season ends. Trader’s dad expects his son to play lacrosse as long as he stays healthy.

As Trader’s football career continues, so will the difficult choices. That push and pull between his love for lacrosse and dreams of a future in football will persist. Another dilemma, similar to the one Trader navigated this past offseason, could emerge again. But “whatever decision you make,” he said, “you run with it.”

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