A strong and physical defense has always been a characteristic of Maryland men’s lacrosse throughout its storied history, and the Terps are hoping to ride that tradition to a Big Ten championship against Michigan on Saturday at Homewood Field.
The No. 3 seeded Terps (10-4) haven’t been as dominant this year, especially in regular-season losses to Loyola Maryland, Notre Dame, Johns Hopkins and Michigan, but they’ve played well in their past two games, including a 14-9 upset win over the second-seeded Blue Jays on Thursday.
Even more impressive was that Maryland did it without top defenseman Ajax Zappitello, who was on the sideline with his right arm in a sling. The Terps also used starting long-stick midfielder John Geppert sparingly because he was slowed by an illness, according to team officials.
Geppert might return for the Michigan game. The Terps will probably hold Zappitello out until the NCAA Tournament begins.
“We kind of just have confidence that whoever’s out there, if we just play our system and our game and trust the scouting report that Coach [Jesse] Bernhardt gives us, we’ll be all right,” said Brett Makar, the Terps’ top defenseman.
Zappitello has been responsible for guarding the other team’s top attackman, but Makar’s overall game is more complete. Against Hopkins on Thursday, Makar, along with Will Schaller and Colin Burlace, led the starting defense.
Joining long stick Jack McDonald in the midfield were shorties Dante Trader Jr., who might be the most athletic player on the team, and Eric Kolar. Despite losing key personnel from last year’s unbeaten national championship team and enduring recent injuries, Maryland has outscored opponents 176-145 this season and allowed only nine goals on 31 extra-man opportunities.
“Dante is a great athlete, but there’s no substitute for experience,” coach John Tillman said of his sophomore, a former McDonogh star who also plays safety for the football team. “So you’re just hoping that with film and practice, you can help replicate what it’s going to be like in a game. You try to do your best because you’re always on yourself to make sure that you go over this because you want to see them succeed because they work so hard.
“It’s been a very different year, but in a lot of ways as a coach, a very rewarding year because with all of the change and everything, this could have been an easy excuse to say, ‘Well, with everything that’s happened, it’s just not going to be a good year.’”
It’s a typical, rugged Maryland defense. When the Terps slide, they slide hard, and it could come from the wings or at the goal line extended. They just grind teams down from the start to the final whistle.
“We’re just playing to our standard,” Trader said. “I’m not going to give our secret sauce out. Just playing our style of defense. Mano a mano, supporting the system, winning your matchup, supporting around you. Guys went out, and you could barely tell because we play a system. It’s not selfish.”
No. 4 seed Michigan (8-6), which upset top-seeded Penn State, 17-15, in the other conference semifinal, isn’t selfish. The Wolverines spread the ball around and have a very talented trio on attack in Michael Boehm (30 goals, 33 assists), Josh Zawada (43 goals, 34 assists) and Ryan Cohen (29 goals, 24 assists).
Michigan also has two good faceoff specialists in Justin Wietfeldt (.615 winning percentage) and Nick Rowlett (.554). When the Wolverines beat the Terps, 16-11, on April 1, Maryland’s Luke Wierman won just 13 of 28 faceoffs, which was the first time he finished under 50% this season.
Michigan is going to get its scoring opportunities, but will the Terps be ready?
“I think if you look throughout the year — whether it was Loyola early or Notre Dame or Michigan — we kind of just got away from what we do,” Makar said. “Try to win your individual matchup, but also support if you have to. If a guy gets beat or a guy gets a step, sometimes you have to slide. I think through those games, we’ve learned a lot with a lot of experience gained there and just a lot more confidence this time around.”
Makar knows what the Wolverines are capable of and won’t take them lightly.
“They’ve got three attackmen that can win one-on-one matchups, that can beat a pole,” he said. “So we’ve really got to be buttoned up there and take some pride there. The last time we played them, they were definitely a handful.”
Big Ten Tournament final
No. 3 seed Maryland vs. No. 4 seed Michigan
Saturday, 5:30 p.m.
At Homewood Field
TV: Big Ten Network