Preston: Maryland men's lacrosse about to hit tough four-game stretch

The picture of Maryland’s 2018 men’s lacrosse season will become clearer within the next month.

On Saturday, the No. 2 Terps will play No. 8 Notre Dame (2-0) followed by No. 1 Albany (2-0) in College Park and then go on the road against No. 7 Villanova (4-0) and to California to face No. 10 North Carolina (5-0) in successive weekend games.

Maryland is unbeaten in four games this season, but it’s hard to gauge whether the Terps have reloaded from last year’s national championship season.

The Terps have beaten Navy, Marist, High Point and Penn, but only beat High Point by two goals. Even head coach John Tillman isn’t sure about the Terps right now.

“Our scrimmages hadn’t gone particularly well,” Tillman said of the preseason. “We grinded one out against Navy and Marist, survived High Point and then felt we got better against Penn, which I felt was a good team. We’ve had good moments and bad moments, but we’re consistently trying to get better.”

History indicates Maryland restocks its roster quickly. The Terps have been to the national title game five times in the past seven years and the championship won last year was their first since 1975.

But that team lost a lot of talent, including its top two short-stick midfielders in Isaiah Davis-Allen and Nick Manis (Severn), two starting defensemen in Mac Pons (Boys’ Latin) and Tim Muller, and the entire attack consisting of Dylan Maltz, Matt Rambo and Colin Heacock (Boys’ Latin).

There were quite a few Alpha males among them.

“It hasn’t been easy. It’s been like I’ve been preaching since August, and a lot harder than most people thought,” said Tillman, who also had to replace two assistant coaches. “There are the distractions where you get reminded and pulled back to last year. We lost so many guys, not only for production, but for leadership.”

The Terps have improved since the beginning of the season, but now it’s time to find out how much and whether they will be serious contenders again. Few opposing teams can match the firepower or slow down Albany, and there aren’t many teams as athletic as North Carolina.

Defense?

There are few who can match the Irish as far as schematics and fundamentals. Maryland is averaging 13 goals a game and Tillman has seen steady improvement in attackmen Jared Bernhardt (12 goals, seven assists), Logan Wisnauskas (11 G, 3 A) and Bubba Fairman (6 G, 1 A) to complement the play of standout middies Connor Kelly (10 G, 9 A) and Tim Rotanz (7 G, 6 A).

“Very athletic team, historically a team that plays great defense,” Tillman said of the Fighting Irish. “They always seem to have great defenders and very organized down there. Scoring goals is always a challenge; at least it has been for us. They are one of the better riding teams and they do really a good job in transition.

“They don’t miss many first-time ground balls. But you’ve got to be aggressive, got to play clean and can’t be sloppy.”

In other words, Notre Dame will force Maryland to play its best game of the season, and so will Albany the following week. Except that time, the Terps will have to play the same type of shutdown defense as Notre Dame.

Albany is averaging 16.5 goals a game and its attack of Connor Fields (13 points), Tehoka Nanticoke (10 points) and Justin Reh (seven points) is probably the best in college lacrosse. Maryland is allowing 7.75 goals a game.

Villanova was somewhat of a surprise team jumping off to a 4-0 start, but got a lot of attention when it upset Penn State, 17-16 in overtime, on Feb. 3. The Tar Heels are a work in progress. They don’t have a dominant superstar, but hustle and are relentless. They don’t quit.

North Carolina is struggling but is still undefeated. In a way, the Tar Heels are like the Terps trying to find balance and chemistry.

“We’re working on a ton of fundamental stuff,” Tillman said. “Logan had his best game last week and Bubba Fairman and Jared Bernhardt are getting more comfortable. We’re not where we want to be, but the improvement is there and for a lot of these guys the game is slowing down a little bit.

“We’ve played so many games in so little time and haven’t had practice time. I’m not complaining, but now we’re on a weekend schedule, so we get a good balance as far as practice and games.”

Tillman isn’t looking too far ahead.

“I know in a few days we play Notre Dame, and it’s pretty darn tough,” Tillman said. “That’s what we’ve seen in college lacrosse right now with all the scores that you live day to day, game to game, and that’s all you can do.”

That’s coach’s speak. All coaches look ahead because that’s part of what they do. That’s part of the preparation. Tillman knows that if the Terps can make it successfully through this part of the season, it’s a good sign.

And if not, they might not make it back to another final four.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MikePrestonSun

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