Many men’s lacrosse players finish their college career without getting a taste of championship weekend. But Maryland’s fifth-year players Tim Rotanz and Dan Morris have not gone a season without the making a trip to the Final Four.
“It’s what every kid dreams of,” said Rotanz, a starting midfielder. “You’re in the backyard, and you’re playing as whatever team you’re rooting for in the Final Four, and you’re making the play. That’s kind of what you dream of – making it to the Final Four and seeing the lights and the crowd.
“So to be there for five years, it hasn’t sunk in yet. Hopefully in a couple of years, I’ll look back and go, ‘Wow, that was just unbelievable.’”
Not only are the top-seeded Terps making their fifth straight trip to the national semifinals, but they are making their seventh in the last eight years. The sport has not seen that kind of consistency since Duke – the No. 4 seed that happens to be Maryland’s opponent Saturday – went to eight straight Finals Fours from 2007 to 2014.
ESPN analyst Paul Carcaterra said the Terps have become the model program in Division I.
“I think they are the gold standard,” the former Syracuse midfielder said. “If you had asked me that question three years ago, I would have said Duke, but I think the pendulum has been switched. I just think that Maryland is what everybody is chasing right now.”
Much of the credit for the Terps’ recent success goes to Tillman, who succeeded Dave Cottle prior to the 2011 season. Tillman does not have the Zen Master-like reputation that the Blue Devils’ John Danowski has developed, but he is widely cited by his players as the constant fixture.
Morris said what separates Tillman and his assistants from other staffs is their willingness to teach players.
“I’ve had coaches in the past or have heard from different guys that play on different teams that the coaches tell them to something and that’s it. There’s no explanation,” Morris said. “But I think our coaches do a really great job of giving us the why. You have to pass and cut and defend in certain ways, and here’s why, and I think getting that why helps guys to buy into what they’re doing more because they know exactly what they’re doing and what’s happening behind them.”
Tillman is quick to point out that the program has avoided the kind of injuries that can derail a run to championship weekend and has won tight games against Syracuse in 2011, Cornell in 2014 and Yale in 2015. He also emphasized that the players have bought into making sacrifices to benefit the whole.
“I think culturally, what has always been here is guys that have never been afraid to work hard and have always invested,” he said. “I think what we’ve asked our guys to do is just give as much as they can. I don’t think we’ve changed a whole lot. I think we’ve trusted our players. … I think if any of our players said, ‘Hey, Coach, we need to look at this,’ I would always trust them. So it’s just having guys that weren’t afraid to work hard and give a lot and be unselfish and be consistent leaders.”
Rotanz said the players have drawn inspiration from alumni who reach out and encourage the current squad.
“It’s the passing of the torch,” he said. “… They’ll do anything to help us, and they’ll give us any inside scoop they have on playing the other team or whatever it may be. I think it’s the investment that they’ve made in their time here. They’re always texting and keeping in touch to help us keep this program running.”
Danowski said his son and offensive coordinator Matt – who still plays in the Major League Lacrosse – has discussed the similarities between the players from Duke and Maryland.
“He says they’re similar spirited kids,” the elder Danowski said. “Really great work ethics, down to earth. So I do believe there is a parallel. And of course, Coach Tillman has done just a phenomenal job as did Coach Cottle and Coach [Dick] Edell before him.”
Tillman said his playersadhere to the same objective.
“Around here, we don’t really change too much. We have the same goals and the same aspirations, and what we did last year is in last year,” he said. “… I think what we do is we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to try to do the best we can every day. The championships will come if we do everything right day in and day out.”
The Terps are trying to become the first back-to-back national champion since the Blue Devils won in 2013 and 2014. That, more than being one of the last four teams left in the tournament, is what drives the players.
“We like to say that we’re excited, but we’re not satisfied,” Morris said. “The end goal is to still make it to Monday and win that game. So it’s cool to go five times, but we’ve only won the one time – last year. So we still have other goals to meet, and we’re just going to take the week to prepare.”