PHILADELPHIA — His eyes glazed over and his voice drowned out by the booming cheers of Denver’s locker room, Maryland men’s lacrosse Coach John Tillman took responsibility for the Terrapins’ 10-5 loss to the Pioneers in the national championship game on Monday. It was the third time Tillman had lost in a title game on Memorial Day, yet this one might have stung the most.
Maryland came to Lincoln Financial Field to reverse history and wipe out a 40-year title drought. Instead it watched history unfold in the most depressing way imaginable, as the Pioneers celebrated their first national championship.
“I just didn’t get them there,” Tillman said, his voice competing with the chants of Denver’s players, who began a new chapter for lacrosse in the West and sent traditional power Maryland back to College Park with thoughts of what could have been. Maryland has now lost eight consecutive national championship game appearances, dating from 1976.
The Terrapins (15-4) could hold their heads high this weekend for just making an appearance in a second consecutive Final Four despite considerable roster turnover and injuries this season, but the primary story line on Monday was breaking through to end the title drought.
“We’re not satisfied with just getting here, but the journey itself was so tremendous in that it’s not an all-or-nothing experience,” Maryland defenseman Matt Dunn said. “We’re very disappointed. We’re going to work very hard next year and use this as motivation.”
The Terrapins never led against the Pioneers (17-2), who used a first-half hat trick from star attackman Wesley Berg to build a 4-1 lead in the second quarter. Both Berg and sophomore Connor Cannizzaro, who starred at Maryland as a freshman before transferring last season, were brilliant Sunday as Denver’s vaunted offense jumped quickly on the country’s top defensive unit. But it was the Pioneers’ defensive tenacity that was most stunning, including the performance of goalie Ryan LaPlante, who finished with 13 saves.
“They were great today. They obviously had a game plan coming into it. They executed it well. And that was that,” said Maryland junior midfielder Bryan Cole, who finished with a goal.
The Terrapins had plenty of opportunities — faceoff specialist Charlie Raffa won 9 of 19 faceoffs in his highly anticipated matchup with Denver freshman Trevor Baptiste — but Maryland could never find a complete offensive rhythm. LaPlante made an acrobatic save in the final seconds of the second quarter to keep Denver’s halftime lead at 5-3, and the Pioneers ripped off three straight goals in the third quarter to take a commanding five-goal lead. The Pioneers then went on a scoring drought that lasted 20 minutes 43 seconds, but it hardly mattered. Denver’s staff, led by former Princeton coach Bill Tierney, made all the proper adjustments as the game progressed.
Maryland lost four all-Americans and Cannizzaro after its Final Four run in 2014, then endured several injuries to key players before the season began in February. That made a return trip unlikely, as Tillman and his staff had to shuffle the deck with their personnel. Still, Maryland had a roster loaded with talent and experience, and it capitalized during a spring in which it won a program-record 15 games. Some members of the 1975 title team made a habit of coming by Maryland practices and games to offer encouragement and support, Terrapins attackman Jay Carlson said earlier this week. The presence of the past offered Maryland’s current players a reminder of what they are playing for, and players spoke all week about ending the drought.
Maryland had also overcome late-season attrition to win three NCAA tournament games and reach the final, and it eyed one final run in the fourth quarter on Monday. It made several desperate pushes at LaPlante, including with sophomore attackman Matt Rambo, the Philadelphia native who finished with two goals.
LaPlante, wearing rolled-up gray sweats, made a crucial stop on a point-blank shot with about four minutes remaining to keep the lead at four. His last kick save came with about two minutes remaining, and he looked up into the sky and raised his fist to celebrate. That sent much of crowd for the exits. Maryland had made its name on a number of dramatic comebacks to reach this game, but Monday, a late charge simply wasn’t an option.
Cannizzaro scored a moment later to add insurance and an extra burn to his former teammates, who hung their heads as they walked off the field. In the foreground, Denver’s players celebrated on a stage, eventually taking the party to their locker room while Tillman made his final remarks of the season.
“I think that people talk about winning a championship and that’s certainly one of our goals,” Tillman said. “We know how much it would mean to our school, our state, our alums, and I’m determined to just bust our hump to try to get it for them.”