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Mike Preston

Mike Preston: Win or lose in NCAA final vs. Cornell, Maryland men’s lacrosse is making history | COMMENTARY

EAST HARTFORD, CONN. — Maryland men’s lacrosse has a date with history Monday.

When the No. 1 seed Terps face No. 7 seed Cornell (14-4) in the NCAA Division I tournament national championship game here at Rentschler Field, they have a chance to establish themselves as either one of the top teams in modern history or perhaps the best team not to win a title.

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Virginia coach Lars Tiffany was correct when he said recently that Maryland (17-0) is as good as the 1990 Syracuse and 2006 Virginia teams, which went undefeated and won national titles — even though the Orange later had to vacate the championship because of an NCAA violation. But that Syracuse team had star players like Paul and Gary Gait, as well as Tom Marechek.

Sixteen years later, Virginia was led by top players like Matt Ward, Ben Rubeor and Matt Poskey. Maryland has a chance to join that elite group and cement its players’ legacies as well, but it’s all meaningless if the Terps lose.

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Maryland coach John Tillman, rightfully so, has been trying to downplay Monday’s game as some historic landmark, but that’s hard to do when a prestigious program like Maryland, Johns Hopkins, Syracuse or Virginia is involved.

Those schools are synonymous with lacrosse history, and the buzz grew louder with each lopsided Terps victory this year as Maryland averaged nearly 18 goals and allowed only nine per game in the regular season.

“We started hearing more and more,” Tillman said. “Guys get on the phone, started reading that stuff or people send it to them. We try to balance them up. With our guys, if we lose the last game, it doesn’t really matter, does it? We’ve tried to do that. We’ve watched that Tom Brady “Man in the Arena” [documentary], which focused on the year [the New England Patriots] were undefeated, played the Giants [in the Super Bowl] and lost. If you lose that last game, it really doesn’t matter.

“If you have the time and want to get caught up in that [comparison], well ... but we’re just focused on being the best version of ourselves and our guys have a sense of that.”

Tillman has been trying to limit the pressure on his players and points out several reasons why this season has already been a success. But he is an intense competitor. He has some anxiousness himself because he has coached Maryland in six national championship games and won only once in 2017, losing in 2011, 2012, 2015, 2016 and 2021.

In some cases, like when the Terps lost to Loyola Maryland, 9-3, in 2012, Maryland was clearly outclassed, but that doesn’t show up on the resume. It’s either win or lose.

The Terps should win against Cornell. Led by attackman Logan Wisnauskas, Maryland has been averaging 17.3 goals in the postseason, and defensemen like Ajax Zappitello, Brett Makar and Matt Rahill should be able to shut down the Big Red attack of John Piatelli (65 goals), Michael Long (33 goals) and CJ Kirst (53 goals).

“Maryland is a fantastic team,” Cornell coach Connor Buczek said. “They do so much well. Obviously, they’ve been a handful for every team they’ve played this year. The tape says they are a fantastic group. They play hard, are experienced and well coached. This is a big task for us. It’s going to take a monumental effort on our part.”

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This game will be decided in the midfield. It should be a great matchup of faceoff guys with Maryland’s Luke Wierman (285-for-431) going against Cornell’s Angelo Petrakis (186-for-388). If any team has a shot of upsetting Maryland, it has to be able to win faceoffs and control the ball, which fits the Big Red’s deliberate style.

Maryland’s short-stick defensive middies need to have perhaps their best game of the year. The Terps could be without their top player, Roman Puglise, who is dealing with what is believed to be a shoulder injury. In Saturday’s game, the Terps moved long-pole middie John Geppert to short stick and got more playing time out of Bubba Fairman. Jake McDonald also joined Jake Higgins and Alex Smith in the regular rotation.

But in the playoffs, no-name players have to come up big in big games. The Big Red will need solid games from blue-collar midfielders like Aiden Blake and Ryan Sheehan, who can dodge or pick-and-roll at the top of the crease. Cornell also has Hugh Kelleher, a 6-foot-3, 220-pound sophomore who bullied Rutgers for three goals Saturday.

Kelleher will have more of a challenge against the Terps because Geppert, Smith and McDonald weigh 190 pounds or more, although Kelleher has scored 22 goals this season. He was often Cornell’s last substitute on offense Saturday to draw a short pole.

“With Roman, I am not exactly sure of what happened or when it happened,” Tillman said of the injury, which occurred in the first half Saturday. “If there is something putting him in harm’s way, I’m not going to let him go. You know Roman. He could break his leg and will want to play. He is that type of guy. I love his play, love his passion and sometimes you have to protect him from himself. Maybe we’ll steal his helmet or something.”

Maryland goalie Logan McNaney showed some concern.

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“We realize they got some midfielders who can generate up at the top,” McNaney said.

Tillman appeared loose after the Terps beat Princeton, 13-8, in the semifinals Saturday. Cornell is making its first appearance in the title game since 2009, and the Ivy League didn’t play a game in the previous two years because of the coronavirus. Cornell is extremely happy to be in this situation, while most of the pressure is on Maryland.

But if all goes well, the Terps should win by five goals — unless they play like Saturday. If that’s the case, this game could be a struggle.

Regardless of what happens, Maryland has a date with history.

This one is headed for the record book.

NCAA Tournament championship

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MARYLAND VS. CORNELL

at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Conn.

Monday, 1 p.m.

TV: ESPN


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