John Tillman knew his Maryland men's lacrosse team would experience its share of growing pains this season. Losing half its roster to graduation last May ensured as much.
Yet for every blown lead or erratic stretch the Terps have endured, the second-year coach has begged the same question: Why not us?
It's become a sort of team motto, a consistent reminder they have the ability to capture the program's first national title since 1975.
"It really is a saying that we believe in here," said midfielder John Haus, whose unseeded Terps notched a convincing 16-10 win over No. 3 seed Duke in the NCAA semifinals on Saturday. "As long as you put that work in and you get better and you continue to get better as the season goes along on the practice field, then why can't it be us?"
And after an up-and-down regular season, it very well could be the Terps hoisting the national championship trophy. They will get that chance Monday when they face Loyola.
But in order to get there, they first had to look at themselves critically.
After dropping their regular-season finale, 13-11, at Colgate on May 5, the Terps were hurting. They had blown a fourth-quarter lead for the fourth time this season, and were suddenly 0-4 in two-goal games.
So Tillman had his team conduct a players-only meeting. He wanted his players to air their grievances, to start anew.
With their five captains directing the conversation, the Terps made a promise to one another: They would play unified and composed. They would have no more regrets.
"Looking back on this playoff run, we want to say we came together as a team," attackman Owen Blye said when asked about the message of the meeting. "And that's ultimately our goal — to learn life lessons throughout the season, to come together as a family and to truly play as a team instead of as individuals."
So far, they've done just that.
The Terps rallied from a two-goal deficit in the fourth quarter to shock No. 7 seed Lehigh, 10-9, in the first round on May 13. Six days later, they played perhaps their most complete game of the season. They controlled possession and routed No. 2 Johns Hopkins, 11-5.
And then Saturday, the Terps turned skeptics into believers. They converted more than 55 percent of their shot attempts, and bested their conference rivals in the Final Four for the second-straight year.
But more than anything, they sent a message: Why not us?
"It's been a longer road," Tillman said. "But in a lot of ways, it's probably as proud of any team that I've ever been."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun