Maryland making the semifinals is becoming one of the surest things in Division I college lacrosse.
The Terrapins are now 7-0 during the quarterfinal round under eighth-year head coach John Tillman. The only slip-up came in 2013 when a sixth-seeded Maryland squad was upset by Cornell.
Freshman midfielder Bubba Fairman posted a career-high five points as top-seeded Maryland dispatched Cornell, 13-8, before an announced crowd of 13,047 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. Sophomore midfielder Jared Bernhardt matched Fairman with three goals as the Terrapins advanced to the Final Four at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.
Tillman was asked afterward what it means that Maryland has been perfect in the quarterfinals during his tenure.
“It means we’ve had a lot of really great players and we’ve been really fortunate,” Tillman said. “Sometimes the ball takes funny bounces during the playoffs. I certainly don’t take anything for granted this time of the year. You get a chance in the tournament and just do your very best.”
Pressed on why he thinks the Terps have been so successful in the crucible that is the quarterfinals, Tillman pointed to the players.
“It helps when you have high-character kids like these. We ask an awful lot of our players and they buy into the team-first mentality and try to do things the right way,” Tillman said. “They look out for each other. We challenge them on a lot of levels, not just as players, but as people and students as well.”
Most Division I head coaches will tell you getting past the Elite Eight is the toughest challenge because every team is capable and the next step is so difficult to take.
“When I was a young coach at Navy, I remember people saying the round that was most important was that quarterfinal because you knew if you could get that one, you were going where you wanted to be,” Tillman said.
Tillman spent 12 seasons in Annapolis as an assistant to head coach Richie Meade, serving as offensive coordinator for the 2004 team that reached the national championship game. The Midshipmen lost in the NCAA quarterfinals the following year.
Maryland certainly experienced its fair share of frustration in the quarterfinal round prior to Tillman’s arrival, falling in that round six times from 2000 through 2010.
Tillman immediately got the Terrapins over the hump after taking over in 2011, leading the program to the NCAA final that season. Maryland was runner-up three more times (2012, 2015, 2016) before finally breaking through and capturing the national championship a year ago.
It marked the first national title in 42 years for Maryland, which had lost in either the finals or semifinals a whopping 18 times since last hoisting the trophy in 1975.
Tillman acknowledged the difficulty of being defending national champs. Maryland was honored at the Maryland State House in January, a time when preseason practice was beginning for 2018. The Terrapins were also invited to the White House to be feted by President Donald Trump.
“This has been maybe the hardest year I’ve had as a head coach because we had to deal with so many different things,” Tillman said. “We had to navigate the whole victory tour thing.”
Tillman posted a list of recent national champions in the Maryland locker room. Written alongside each was what happened the following year. Virginia (2011), Loyola (2012), Denver (2015) and North Carolina (2016) either didn’t make the NCAA Tournament or lost in the first round.
“It’s almost been like a curse,” said Tillman, who coined the phrase “attacking champs” to get his players to have a hungry attitude going into this season.
Truth be told, Maryland’s struggles have come in the opening round during Tillman’s tenure. He pointed out the Terps trailed Lehigh (2012), Cornell (2014) and Yale (2015) before rallying to win.
Maryland had another scare last Sunday when Robert Morris took a 6-3 halftime lead. The Terps had to dig deep to pull out a 14-11 victory over the visiting Colonials.
“I have not done a good job in that first weekend, to be honest,” Tillman said. “That first round seems to be hard for us and I need to take a look at how we’re approaching it.”
Maryland has mostly been a buzzsaw the following weekend, winning their last six quarterfinals by an average of seven goals. A 6-5 overtime victory over top-seeded Syracuse was the only close call during the Tillman era.
“I think a lot of it comes down to John’s preparation and meticulous attention to the details,” Maryland offensive coordinator J.L. Reppert said of Tillman’s 7-0 record in the quarters. “Yes, it’s a chance to go to the Final Four and there’s that heightened sensitivity, but it’s kind of like another game we have to play and we prepare the same way.”
Reppert was a standout attackman at Navy when Tillman was a young assistant and the two developed a close friendship. Reppert worked for Tillman at Harvard in 2009 and is now in his third season at Maryland.
Consistently advancing to the national semifinals or beyond requires a coach that can be flexible at times. Maryland’s players were in exams this past week and Tillman sensed they were tired. He decided to hold shorter practices than usual in order to conserve the players’ energy.
“We did not do much full-field scrimmaging at all. Our Thursday practice was like 45 minutes, just the basics,” Tillman said. “That was somewhat of a calculated guess, and it could have backfired if we weren’t prepared today.”
Maryland was more than prepared for Cornell and Tillman felt his team played with great energy. Fairman and defenseman Curtis Corley both agreed during the post-game press conference that their head coach was wise to scale back practices last week.
“I think John does a great job of understanding the pulse of the team. Last week, he sensed the team was worn out a bit and that we needed to back off,” Reppert said.
Tillman is famous for living and breathing lacrosse, leading some observers to wonder if he has any life outside the sport. Reppert chuckled when his boss’ infamous work ethic was brought up.
“It’s easy to work hard for a guy that works harder than anyone,” Reppert said. “John is very demanding of his players and assistants, but at the end of the day he’s setting the example with how hard he works.”
Maryland has now avoided the fate of those previous national champs and will have a chance to become the first school since Duke (2013, 2014) to repeat. That is quite a feat considering the talent the Terrapins lost with the likes of Colin Heacock, Matt Rambo, Dylan Maltz, Tim Muller, Isaiah Davis-Allen and Nick Manis now all playing professionally in Major League Lacrosse.
“Seeing the smiles on their faces today and know we have another week together and get to play one more game representing Maryland is pretty special,” Tillman said.