The emotional impact of a 10-8 loss to Colgate in the regular-season home finale continues to resonate with the Maryland men's lacrosse team, but not necessarily in a negative manner.
Seniors Dan Burns and Max Schmidt both agree that the setback — which cost the Terps a top-eight seed and a first-round home contest in the NCAA tournament — reinvigorated the team's defense.
"I feel like that was a wake-up call for our defense as a tune-up for the tournament," Burns, a short-stick defensive midfielder, said Wednesday. "We felt good coming off that ACC championship. That Colgate loss could've been the biggest blessing in disguise for us. If we had played that way in the first round of the tournament, we're at home sitting on our couches right now. So after that loss, we've decided that giving up that many goals is unacceptable. We knew what we were capable of. We just felt like we hadn't put together our best game yet. Each week of practice, we've just been focused."
Added Schmidt, a defenseman: "For this team, it really helped us to re-focus and see that nothing is going to be given to us. Colgate was a great team. They came that day obviously ready to play, and we kind of let it slip out of our hands. So it kind of put things into perspective for us and allowed us to realize that if we don't come to play every single day, we could be beat by anyone."
The defense appears to be applying those lessons on the field, where the unit has surrendered just 11 goals in two postseason games. And as Maryland prepares to meet No. 5 seed Duke in the second NCAA tournament semifinal at M&T Bank Stadium on Saturday, ESPN analyst Paul Carcaterra said the defense is living up to preseason expectations.
"That's a senior-laden group," the former Syracuse All-American midfielder said. "They have three seniors starting at close defense, their long pole, Brian Farrell, is awesome especially with the ball, and their goaltender has made saves. This defense is so smart that they're forcing the opposition into poor-percentage shots, and [redshirt freshman goalie] Niko Amato is gobbling all of those up. … This is a very strong defense. We knew going into the season that they were going to be strong, and Amato has put the cherry on top."
Things weren't always smooth for the Terps as they transitioned from being coached by defensive coordinator Dave Slafkosky — who had been a fixture in College Park for 26 years under coaches Dick Edell and Dave Cottle — to defensive coordinator Kevin Warne and volunteer coach Jon Stainbrook.
The unit also had to develop chemistry with Amato, a talented youngster who succeeded Brian Phipps as the starting goalkeeper. As his 6.81 goals-against average and .578 save percentage would suggest, Amato has developed nicely, but he is the first to admit that a veteran starting lineup in defensemen Brett Schmidt, Ryder Bohlander and Max Schmidt, long-stick midfielder Brian Farrell and Burns has aided his progress.
"They really study a lot of film, they're smart, they're good communicators, they're fast and athletic," Amato said of his defensive teammates. "They do a great job on the field, and they know what they have to do to prepare for gameday."
Burns said that because many of the defensive players have experienced the highs and lows of the program, there is a sense of trust among them. He also acknowledged the presence of moderate urgency.
"The communication has picked up, and everything has picked up," Burns said. "We know what we're capable of — six [goals] to [North Carolina] in the first round and five to Syracuse. And the goals that we let go in, we're still angry at ourselves because we know we could've stopped one or two more."
After limiting the powerful Orange in a 6-5 overtime win in the quarterfinals on Sunday, Maryland is beginning to get credit for its defense. But that's of little consequence to the players.
"People don't need to mention us for us to know who we are," Max Schmidt said. "Our defense came into this year with three seniors coming back, and we knew that we could be good. We knew that we had an opportunity to prove to a lot of people that we are one of the best defenses in the whole country."