COLLEGE PARK - Coach Dave Cottle has never bragged about his lacrosse teams at either the University of Maryland or Loyola College, but he feels pretty good about his No. 2 Terps right now.
It's a major difference from a year ago, when he was barely into his first season in College Park as a replacement for longtime Maryland coach Dick Edell.
"We're deeper now. We've got more experienced middies," said Cottle, whose Terps were 9-4 last year. "We're better than most teams, but not as good as some. Not yet. But I'm a lot more confident now than I was a year ago."
Maryland is off to a 4-0 start, having beaten Duke, Stony Brook, Towson and Bucknell. Those teams aren't in the same class as Syracuse, Johns Hopkins, Princeton and Virginia, but coaches like Princeton's Bill Tierney and Towson's Tony Seaman are convinced that the Terps are serious national championship contenders.
We'll find out more in the next couple of weeks about the Terps when they play North Carolina, Virginia, Navy and Hopkins, but Maryland is for real, unlike a year ago when Cottle was still trying to create a settling environment.
With the transition complete, Cottle and his staff have been more concerned with on-field strategy. A third of their practices are spent on special teams. Maryland has perhaps the best defense in the country, and finally an offense to complement it.
"The biggest difference is we have an offense that is more diversified," said Cottle, third in wins among active coaches in the sport. "We can attack now from in front of the goal as well as behind it. Last year, we could only attack from out front."
That's because Maryland has three new faces on its attack including Brian Hunt, a graduate student from Yale, and freshman Joe Walters, from Rochester, N.Y. Besides having two solid midfielders from a year ago in Mike Mollet and Ryan Moran, the Terps added depth during the offseason with Justin Smith, a transfer from UMBC; Ian Healey, who missed last season with an injury; and Joe Parker, a graduate student from Colgate.
Hunt is a go-to-the-goal player with 15 points. Walters is more of a pure finisher with nine goals. Walters' nickname? The Lefty Lazer. No wonder the Terps are No. 5 in the nation in scoring, averaging 14 goals a game.
"Last year, we scored only 17 man-up goals. So far this year, we've already scored 13. We lost four games by one goal, three of them in overtime on the road," said Cottle, whose team didn't make the NCAA playoff field last season. "Of the 90 goals we gave up, 31 percent were man-up. Most of the time, special teams are something you usually run at the end of practice. This year, we decided to devote one-third of our practice to special teams. Offensively, it's important for us to score in double digits."
The Terps figure if they can score at least 10 goals, they'll win because of defense. Maryland, which allowed only seven goals a game last season, is currently allowing six. The Terps have two preseason All-Americans on defense in Mike Howley and Chris Passavia. But Lee Zink is just as good.
In every game, the Terps have had stretches of 20 or more minutes where they didn't allow a goal.
"I haven't changed any, not any different than last year," said Cottle. "What we have to do is make sure what our goals are. If our goals are lofty, then we have to make more of practice. We're getting a lot more out of practice than we were last year. We have an experienced group of kids who have been successful on the field."
The Terps have 12 seniors and two graduate students on the roster. It's the last chance at a national championship for a lot of them. For Cottle, it's a different scenario. This is really just the beginning for him. It's different at Maryland than at Loyola, where he coached for 19 seasons.
Loyola is a small, private school tucked away in the city of Baltimore. Maryland has more than 150 acacemic majors. The Terps have nationally ranked basketball, football and women's lacrosse teams. During the fall and winter, Cottle can bring in a recruit to watch a game at Byrd Stadium or at the new Comcast Center.
For years, Maryland was basically absent from the local recruiting scene. The Terps already have national letters of intent from players at McDonogh and Severn.
"When I first started recruiting Joe Walters, I was still at Loyola and saying nothing but good things about Loyola," said Cottle, laughing. "But then when I became the head coach here, I told him, 'Loyola really is a nice school, but wait until you see this place. Wow. With all the good things that have happened here with football and basketball, this is a good place to be right now.' "
And the men's lacrosse team isn't too far behind.