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Mike Preston

Mike Preston’s NCAA lacrosse Final Four preview on Maryland’s frustrating schedule quirk, Bubba Fairman’s new role and more | COMMENTARY

Maryland men’s lacrosse coach John Tillman is usually reserved when it comes to sensitive or emotional issues surrounding his team, but he certainly isn’t happy about the No. 1 seed Terps playing No. 5 seed Princeton in the second game of the Final Four on Saturday at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Connecticut.

The Terps (16-0) get the late semifinal game for the ninth time in nine trips to the Final Four under Tillman, who has been at Maryland since 2011. Tillman and the Terps have finished as the runner-up in five national title games, and the winner of the early semifinals has won nine of the last 10 titles.

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A lot of coaches are superstitious, but this scheduling appears to be deliberate, which is why Tillman keeps looking over his shoulder.

This isn’t the NFL, where millionaire players want to be showcased on prime-time in front of their peers and family members. These guys want to play, and play now.

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No. 6 seed Rutgers (15-3) and No. 7 seed Cornell (12-4) play at noon Saturday, followed by Maryland and Princeton (11-4) at 2:30 p.m.

“I just don’t understand the process. I think if you talk to any coach, there are a lot of reasons [for not wanting to play the second game],” Tillman said. “You’re cooped up in the hotel. You’d like to play the first game. If it’s a noon game, I’m up early, so let’s go play. Let’s not sit around. And the kids would rather go play. And if you’re fortunate enough to win, now it’s done, and it’s over, and you can clearly focus on the second game.

“You can watch the two teams, your kids can get more rest because they get back to the hotel sooner, and you can watch that second game more clearly. It’s hard to watch that first game because you’re really focused on winning that second game. I’m curious to how that decision is made. You would think the odds after nine times, that once out of nine, it would just happen. No one really knows how that decision is made. I haven’t found anybody, but I would love to find out. You would just think randomly it wouldn’t work out that way. If you are the No. 1 seed, is there any benefit to it?”

If this was coming from Rutgers coach Brian Brecht, whose team is making its first appearance in the Final Four, then you could dismiss it as a coach being too sensitive. But this is Tillman, who’s had to deal with it nine times.

Nice moment for New Jersey

This Final Four will be a big moment for New Jersey because both Rutgers and Princeton are from the state.

Brecht says this is a culmination of years of young kids playing lacrosse, a trend that has gone nationwide.

“The youth and high school participation numbers have been going through the roof over the last five, 10 years,” Brecht said. “Lacrosse is at its highest it has ever been, and having the state university of Rutgers in the Final Four for the first time — you see it with our attendance on game day. Our alumni have been great and local alumni have come back with the youth and high school players to see our regular-season and Big Ten games and then for the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

“I am certainly excited for the sport of lacrosse in New Jersey, obviously having two teams from the state of New Jersey in the Final Four. I think it just gets the excitement and the juices flowing even more for the young players that continue having fun playing the game that they love.”

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Fairman finds his role

One of the reasons Maryland has continued to dominate college lacrosse is because Tillman consistently wins with transfers, including attackman Keegan Khan (Villanova; 32 goals, 26 assists), midfielders Jonathan Donville (Cornell; 29 goals, 20 assists) and Owen Murphy (Johns Hopkins; 32 goals, five assists) and defensive middies Alex Smith (Hartford) and Jake Higgins (Cleveland State).

One of the most interesting stories is senior midfielder Bubba Fairman, who at one time was considered to be one of the team’s brightest offensive prospects. Now, he is the fourth defensive midfielder, but preferred to stay at Maryland where he could possibly win a second national championship.

“He kind of has made that ultimate sacrifice in terms of a team sense,” said Jesse Bernhardt, the Terps’ defensive coordinator. “We’ll get together sometimes individually just kind of talk about things and some things to him are still brand new because it’s a whole new position he’s learning. Even though Bubba has played lacrosse before at this level, each position has its different little nuances. So the ability to kind of let your guard down a little bit and at times, obviously, probably deal with some frustration because on one end of the field he was super successful and now he’s kind of taking a step back where he is now behind some really good short sticks like Roman Puglise, Alex Smith and Jake Higgins.”

“Between those four guys, I’ll put those guys up against anybody in the country,” added Bernhardt, a former All-American long-stick midfielder for the Terps and the brother of 2021 Tewaaraton Award winner Jared Bernhardt. “If no one knew [Fairman] had played offensive midfield pretty much his whole life, and they watched him play this year, you would think he’s been playing short stick for a long time, and he still has plenty to learn.”

Don’t overlook the defense

Maryland’s defense gets overlooked because its offense is averaging 18.5 goals a game.

But the constant between the two previous coaches — the late Dick Edell and Dave Cottle — and Tillman has been an aggressive defense. Maryland always made opponents feel sore the next morning.

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The 2022 version featuring defensemen Ajax Zappitello, Brett Makar and Matt Rahill is as good as any during the past decade. The Terps are allowing only 9.2 goals per game.

“I think it boils down to the guys. I just stand on the sideline, they’re the guys who go out and play,” Jesse Bernhardt said. “You come up with the best game plan or so-called game plan in the world, but if guys can’t go out and do it, then it’s not really that great of a game plan. We’ve just been fortunate to have a really experienced and mature group that kind of prides themselves on playing on Maryland defense and Maryland lacrosse. It’s not always the most sexy or glamorous thing in the world.

“But when you have a lot of like-minded guys, a lot of driven guys, a lot of guys who are kind of committed to the process and just kind of willing to do whatever it takes. ... I think we also have a group of guys that have dealt with a lot of adversity, whether that’s individually in their lives or just kind of through the course of their tenure at Maryland by not necessarily kind of maybe achieving some goals they haven’t got to yet.”

Brothers face off

Rutgers senior Colin Kirst is the best goalie among the Final Four participants with a .548 save percentage.

Unfortunately — or maybe fortunately — he’ll face his younger brother CJ, a sophomore attackman for the Big Red who has 50 goals and 22 assists.

“Colin has been a true professional in every sense of the word,” Brecht said. “He is laser focused, he prepares the right way, and he is diligent in the classroom and on the field. We have seen this movie before with Colin facing his brother [Cole] who was an attackman for Lehigh. Now this year, Colin is going against his brother [CJ] who is an attackman for Cornell. I think it is business as usual this week in our preparation, and certainly his preparation stays the same as well.

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“I think it is great for the media and college lacrosse. But I think on game day, just another 60-minute game for him and for us in the program.”

NCAA Final Four

Saturday at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Conn.

No. 6 seed Cornell vs. No. 7 seed Rutgers, noon, ESPN2

No. 1 seed Maryland vs. No. 5 seed Princeton, 2:30 p.m., ESPN2


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