Maryland has gone 40 seasons without winning a national championship in men’s lacrosse, and just four months ago there was little to suggest that the drought would end this season. The Terrapins not only lost four first-team all-Americans from last season, but suffered a blow with the departures of an assistant coach and the team’s director of operations. They watched as attacker Connor Cannizzaro, last season’s ACC freshman of the year, transferred to Denver in the offseason, and starting attackman Tim Rotanz and midfielder Nick Manis suffered season-ending injuries before the team’s opener in February.
But here Maryland is, back in the Final Four for the fourth time in five seasons. It is a testament both to the program’s ability to replenish talent and to how that talent handled a season’s worth of affliction to reach Saturday’s national semifinals at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field. It only seems fitting that it will be played against rival Johns Hopkins, which ran away with a win against the Terrapins in the regular season finale last month.
“Coming into the season, we lost a lot of big players from last year. Great players. Big names,” junior defenseman Matt Dunn said. “From our perspective, we knew . . . if we worked hard, played together, our potential is endless.”
Maryland (14-3), the NCAA tournament’s sixth overall seed, enters the rematch on a roll, and a win Saturday would set a single-season program record for wins. After dispatching Yale, 8-7, in the first round, the Terrapins delivered a statement in a 14-7 win over No. 3 North Carolina in the quarterfinals last weekend. The Tar Heels went nearly 25 minutes without a goal at one point in the second half, a drought that again provided a glimpse into how dominant Maryland’s defense can be.
“It was definitely an awesome feeling to be able to play such a good offense and hold them to seven goals,” said senior defenseman Casey Ikeda, the Big Ten defensive player of the year. “We kind of had a great week of practice, and it was a huge payoff for us.”
The Terrapins lost three all-Americans on defense, including goalie Niko Amato, but lead the country in scoring defense (6.65 goals allowed per game), and junior goalie Kyle Bernlohr leads the nation in goals against average (6.57) and ranks third in save percentage (5.89). On Friday, Bernlohr was named the nation’s top goalie by the U.S. Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association, making Maryland the first program to win the award in consecutive seasons with different goalies since Johns Hopkins in 1961 and ’62.
The unit now faces one of its stiffest challenges of the season in the unseeded Blue Jays (11-6), who have won seven consecutive games, including a 15-12 victory at Maryland on April 25 when they burned the Terps with eight second-half goals. Keeping Hopkins star attackman Ryan Brown (eight goals in first meeting) in check will be crucial, Maryland Coach John Tillman said.
“We’re not winning if he scores that many goals again,” Tillman said. “We’ve got to have a better sense of where he is.”
Maryland will also have a healthier Charlie Raffa at its disposal. The senior faceoff specialist struggled with an upper-body injury for much of April, and Tillman said Wednesday that the decision to sit Raffa for all but three faceoffs of a 9-6 loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament semifinals was “probably the most important decision we made all year.” It essentially gave Raffa a week off to heal and prepare for the NCAA tournament, and he’s been crucial in both of Maryland’s postseason wins. He won three decisive faceoffs in the fourth quarter against Yale and finished 12 of 19 against North Carolina. It was another move by Tillman to adapt in a season that has been underscored with roster turnover and injuries.
Make no mistake, Maryland remains a national powerhouse, and its players acted as if they expected to be in the Final Four when they met with reporters earlier this week. Not only is winning the standard for the program — Maryland, which began fielding a lacrosse team in 1924, is the only major program to have never finished with a losing record (Cornell is the next closest with 17 straight winning seasons) — but so is reaching the NCAA tournament. The Terrapins have appeared in 13 consecutive NCAA tournaments, the longest streak in the country.
The only piece that has been missing the past 40 years is a national championship, despite 18 appearances in the Final Four and seven in the championship game over that time. Tillman said this week that his current players aren’t haunted by the past, and that program alumni don’t expect them to carry the burden of ending the drought.
His message for the week boiled down to a three-word question: “Why not us?” It is a common phrase many coaches have used to inspire locker rooms. But it remains a realistic question for Maryland this weekend in Philadelphia, where all four teams are legitimate contenders to win. (No. 1 Notre Dame will play No. 4 Denver in Saturday’s other semifinal.)
“Our whole team understands that there hasn’t been a championship team since 1975,” senior attackman Jay Carlson said. “This is the year we think we can really push through that and make it happen.”