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Maryland defenseman Tim Muller emerges as 'a No. 1 guy for sure'

Maryland defenseman Tim Muller emerges as 'a No. 1 guy for sure'
Maryland defenseman Tim Muller during a win over Rutgers on April 16, 2016. (Courtesy of Maryland Athletics)

The defense for the Maryland men's lacrosse team prides itself on a collective effort that has helped the unit tie Saint Joseph's for the eighth-fewest goals allowed per game in Division I. But the emergence of Tim Muller has been a pivotal development.

In his first year as a full-time starter, the junior defenseman leads the top-seeded and Big Ten champion Terps (14-2) — who play Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference champ Quinnipiac (12-3) in Sunday's NCAA tournament first-round game in College Park at 12:30 p.m. — in caused turnovers with 20, ranks sixth in ground balls with 31 and is frequently assigned to shadow opponents' most dangerous attackmen.

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Despite all that, Muller is not very comfortable with the label of shutdown defenseman.

"I don't know if I would call myself a shutdown defenseman," he said. "We're big on team defense, and I make a lot of mistakes, and I've got [senior] Matt Dunn and [sophomore] Mac Pons backing me up no matter what I do. So it's all right."

Muller went a little further, asserting, "I could see some kids on the team doing the exact same thing. It's been exciting to get out there and do whatever I can to help the team win."

The 6-foot-1, 190-pound Muller is just being modest, according to ESPN analyst Paul Carcaterra.

"He's a No. 1 guy for sure," the former Syracuse midfielder said. "You have teams where you have a few defensemen and depending on the matchups, you say, 'Well, he's going to guard this type of player because he's a bigger or faster or stronger or quicker guy.' Muller can guard anyone. That's what makes him special as a defenseman, the fact that he's versatile."

Fellow ESPN analyst Mark Dixon pointed out that during coach John Tillman's six-year tenure, the program has handed the responsibility of top defenseman from Brett Schmidt to Michael Ehrhardt to Goran Murray to Casey Ikeda and now to Muller.

"Maryland has a tradition where they have the guy who's going to be the All American, but they also have the guy in the shadows who's the next one up, and Muller is the next one up," the said Dixon, a former Johns Hopkins midfielder. "He might be there right now with the way he's playing and the way he's performed."

This season, Muller has faced standout attackmen like Yale sophomore Ben Reeves, Notre Dame senior Matt Kavanagh, Albany sophomore Connor Fields, Rutgers senior Scott Bieda and Johns Hopkins sophomore Shack Stanwick, and only Reeves was able to score more than one goal and more than two points against Muller. But Muller said he treats every assignment the same.

"You're not going to look at one guy and automatically think that he's better than everyone else and say, 'I'm going to go out there and do my own thing,'" he said. "I'm going to go out there, and I'm going to play team defense, and I know my teammates have my back, and I have their back. I'm just going to do what we do. I don't really look too much into who I'm covering."

Through all of his individual success, Muller was forced to endure the death of childhood friend and Georgetown junior defenseman Ed Blatz Jr., who passed away on April 24. Muller, who grew up with Blatz in Garden City, N.Y., said he learned of his friend's death just hours before the Terps were to play Big Ten rival Ohio State.

"It was kind of tough to go out there and play," conceded Muller, who wears a sticker with Blatz's name and high school number on the back of his helmet, and has written his name and number on the inside of his chin guard. "But I know that he would have wanted me to play. He was always excited for me to play well and always excited for us to do well here. He would visit. Being able to play with him was a pleasure. I'm just trying to do the best I can because I know he was a great defenseman, and I know he'd do the same."

Tillman said Muller did not have one of his better outings against Ohio State, but the coach never considered pulling him.

"Certainly, we have to put the team first, but I also think Timmy's earned that with all of the sacrifices that he's made and all that he was going through," Tillman said. "We just needed to make sure that we helped manage him. We were hoping that collectively, everybody would step up their games and help Timmy, too, and that's kind of what happened."

Muller could mark Bobcats senior Ryan Keenan (32 goals and 18 assists) on Sunday and then either No. 8 seed Syracuse redshirt senior Dylan Donahue (28G, 31A) or Fields (42G, 29A) in the quarterfinals in Providence on Saturday. If that responsibility seems daunting, Muller seems ready for the challenge.

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"I don't think there's pressure," he said. "I'm just going to go out there and do what I do. If I make a mistake, I know Matt and Mac will be there to help me out, and I know [redshirt senior goalkeeper] Kyle [Bernlohr] will be there to make a save."

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