Monday's entry is the sixth installment of a week-long series taking a look at each of the seven Division I programs in this state according to their order of finish from last season. Check back on Tuesday for a preview of Loyola, and The Sun's lacrosse preview is slated to be published on Friday, Feb. 8. This is Maryland's turn.
Overview: The Terps pulled off an improbable feat, becoming the first unseeded team in NCAA history to advance to the tournament final in back-to-back seasons. But as they did in 2011 when they lost to Virginia, the Terps fell to Loyola in last year's championship game. Maryland knocked off Lehigh, Johns Hopkins and Duke in the postseason after compiling a 9-5 record in the regular season and finishing fourth in the Atlantic Coast Conference. John Tillman is 25-11 in two years as the program's head coach, but can he guide the Terps to the promised land? Time will tell.
Reason for optimism: A year ago, the defense loomed as the largest question mark after it graduated all three starting defensemen. But then-sophomores Michael Ehrhardt and Brian Cooper and then-freshman Goran Murray helped the unit rank ninth in Division I in average goals allowed (7.9), and those three – along with senior long-stick midfielder Jesse Bernhardt and senior short-stick defensive midfielder Landon Carr – are back to patrol the area in front of junior goalkeeper Niko Amato, a two-year starter. "That experience, you hope, is a strength," Tillman said of the defense. "Last year, we just had a lot of young guys out there, and at times, the game was pretty fast for them. Luckily, the emphasis was just get better, get better, get better and as the year went on. I think the game did slow down for them. We tweaked some things towards their strengths. We got a little better feel at what the kids were good at, and at times, offensively, we were able to protect them and give them some confidence. So I think to have a group of guys that has been on the field while we still have some guys that we're trying to work in and create that depth, it is hopefully something that will pay off for us this year."
Reason for pessimism: An undisclosed injury bothered Curtis Holmes throughout last season, but the faceoff specialist never complained. Even with contributions from Charlie Raffa, Maryland's faceoff unit won just 51.3 percent – the team's lowest mark since 2009. Both Holmes and Raffa underwent surgical procedures in the offseason and are getting back into form, which forced the team to give faceoffs to sophomore Bobby Gribbin and freshman Andrew Walsh in the fall. Tillman said he could envision a scenario where all four players get a shot at draws. "Having those options will be really important for us because that is a position where guys get nicked up," Tillman said. "There is potential for injury, and those guys are team-oriented guys. They'll compete against each other, yet they'll support each other and they'll just want the team to win. I think we just need to keep grinding and working, and there will be games when one guy might get more of the reps and get out there more than the other. Yet, that can change three days later in another game. Everybody's got to get ready for their opportunities."
Keep an eye on: The Terps graduated just two starters, but one was attackman Joe Cummings, and his team-leading 31 goals and 50 points in 2012 will be sorely missed. Sophomore Jay Carlson is poised to join seniors Owen Blye (20, 20) and Billy Gribbin (22, 4) as starters, but Tillman hasn't handed that job to Carlson just yet. "As we tell everybody around here, every time you come back, you've got to earn your spot again," Tillman said. "Jay will certainly be in the mix. We'll just see how it goes. Last year, we moved Joe around a little bit and Owen moved around a little bit. So he certainly has as good a shot as anybody to get on the field. Yet, he's going to have to prove it every day. He's had some good moments so far. He's really improved his overall game, and he's really tried to be a guy that has tried to get better, and that's something that I've been very impressed with. You can't just be a one-dimensional guy, and that's something with every single guy here that we're going to try to make them as good as they can be and yet play them into their strengths."
What he said: Maryland's wealth of experience and talent has convinced a few outlets to rank the team as the second-best squad in Division I, just behind reigning national champion Loyola. That's all well and good, but Tillman said he's not interested in attaching a label to his team. "Big-picture, we're game-planning to put our kids in the best position possible," he said. "We want to execute well and play like Maryland. … So I'll let other people try to figure out what we are and what we're not going to be. I realize right now, we just have a lot of things we need to work on and there are a lot of areas that we need to address. We just need to keep working every day."