Junior attackman Jared Bernhardt (center) is one of several returning starters the Maryland men's lacrosse program will rely on to overcome the losses of several key players from last season.
Junior attackman Jared Bernhardt (center) is one of several returning starters the Maryland men's lacrosse program will rely on to overcome the losses of several key players from last season. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

For the second year in a row, graduation was unkind to the Maryland men’s lacrosse program.

After losing their entire starting attack, top defenseman and top two short-stick defensive midfielders from a 2017 squad that captured the school’s first NCAA Division I championship in 42 years, the Terps said farewell last spring to their top two midfielders, another starting defenseman and starting goalkeeper after reaching the national semifinals.

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But if Maryland players are supposed to be cowed by the departures that would seem to undercut their expectations for the 2019 season, they are not showing it before Saturday’s season opener against Bucknell at Maryland Stadium in College Park at 1 p.m.

Maryland leads Baltimore-area men’s programs in preseason Inside Lacrosse media poll

Along with the No. 3 Terps, Loyola Maryland and Johns Hopkins rank among the top seven.

“We reload,” senior defenseman Curtis Corley said Wednesday. “So people may not know us as much, but we are a very talented team this year, and we’re just looking for the season to come around so that we can show people who may be overlooking us what we really are. We have some unknowns that I think are going to be great for us and are going to be key role players for us.”

Added junior attackman Jared Bernhardt during the university’s spring sports media day Monday: “I think we embrace the challenge every day. There’s new obstacles and challenges every year. We lost [defenseman] Bryce Young and [goalie] Dan Morris and [midfielder] Adam DiMillo, all those guys who had great experience. But like I said, we’re a systematic team. Our defense, we have certain things that we do, and guys are able to buy in. It’s going to help.”

The players’ confidence is backed by the team’s No. 3 ranking in the Inside Lacrosse preseason media poll. And although the Terps were voted to finish second in the Big Ten behind archrival Johns Hopkins, they have won three consecutive regular-season titles and tournament crowns in 2016 and 2017.

Still, the league race figures to be as difficult as it has been with Top 20 opponents in the No. 7 Blue Jays, No. 9 Penn State, No. 12 Rutgers, No. 16 Ohio State and No. 20 Michigan looming as potential roadblocks.

“I think it’s wide open, I really do,” lacrosse analyst Mark Dixon told the Big Ten Network in a season preview show. “Maryland is a team that is trying to put it together minus guys like [midfielder] Connor Kelly and Dan Morris. But they return [sophomore midfielder] Bubba Fairman, Jared Bernhardt, and you’ve got an excellent player in [sophomore attackman] Logan Wisnauskas.”

Maryland’s top priority is retooling an offense that lost Kelly, the first midfielder in program history to top 40 goals and 30 assists in the same season and the school’s third Tewaaraton Award finalist, and Rotanz, who had at least one point in 32 consecutive games and matched his assists total through the first three years of his career.

The unit will lean on Bernhardt (40 goals and 16 assists in 2018), Wisnauskas (35, 15) and Fairman (26, 9), and sophomore attackman Anthony DeMaio (7, 6), senior midfielder Will Snider (7, 0) and senior attackman Louis Dubick (5, 0) will have an opportunity to prove they should be starters.

Coach John Tillman said the graduation of Kelly might be a blessing in disguise.

“You hope when you lose a guy like that, maybe you get a little less predictable and a little more versatile so that defenses can’t just key on one guy,” Tillman said. “Sometimes when you have a guy like that, there’s a lot of standing around and watching and thinking, ‘Connor’s going to bail us out.’ But we all need to take up the responsibility. So maybe we can be a little more deceptive that way.”

A defense that limited opponents to 9.4 goals per game last spring said farewell to Young (25 ground balls, 11 caused turnovers, two goals, three assists), Morris (9.17 goals-against average, .529 save percentage) and long-stick midfielder Matt Neufeldt (56 ground balls, 11 caused turnovers).

Freshman Brett Makar is poised to join Corley (13 ground balls, 14 caused turnovers) and junior Jack Welding (seven ground balls, seven caused turnovers) as starting defensemen, while senior Nick Brozowski (37 ground balls, eight caused turnovers) and sophomore Matt Rahill (one ground ball) are the top two long-stick midfielders.

Graduate student Danny Dolan is set to make his first start for Maryland in net. The Massachusetts transfer has earned the trust of his teammates.

“He’s a great guy to fit into our system and our defense because he will do anything for this team, and his hard work has paid off over the summer and fall ball,” said Corley, Dolan’s roommate. “He’s stepping into that leadership role and being a voice on the defense. He’s doing absolutely amazing, and he’s everything I would want out of my goalie.”

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Besides the five Big Ten opponents, the Terps will test their mettle against three other ranked foes in No. 11 Notre Dame, No. 14 Albany and No. 15 North Carolina. Bernhardt said the players will be fully aware of what is expected of them during those games.

“We’re not asking for guys to come in and be Connor Kelly or Tim Rotanz,” he said. “We need guys that are able to do their jobs, do their roles. Down the road, they’re going to be in certain positions, but we’re not asking them to go in there and score goals and do things like that. That will come naturally. We just want them to go in there and make great decisions.”

Notes: Tillman said he is optimistic that junior attackman Steven Shollenberger and sophomore attackman James Avanzato will be able to bounce back from ACL injuries that forced them to sit out much of last season. “Both of those guys are close to being back to 100 percent, and both of those guys were starting to play for us last year,” he said. “They’re shaking off the rust right now, and they’re starting to play their way in.”

» Bernhardt will carry on the tradition of wearing the No. 1 jersey, which is bestowed to the player who embodies performance and leadership on offense. Bernhardt said he is not worried about the pressure of extending a legacy started by Andrew Whipple and continued by Joe Walters, Matt Rambo and Kelly, among others. “I think it’s just a number,” he said. “I talked to Coach the other day. I say it’s just a number, but it’s a great honor. But if I wasn’t wearing No. 1, I would still be doing the same things. I would still be trying to lead this team, I would still be committed every day to hard work.”

» Neufeldt, who missed his sophomore year because of a torn ACL, is using his last year of eligibility at No. 8 Denver, which will be a strange vision for Corley. “We don’t have any qualms or anything,” he said. “We’re still good friends off the field. I think the entire team looks at him as a good player. So I think he’ll do great there, and we just wish him the best of luck.”

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