Only a year ago, Maryland’s John Tillman had the toughest coaching job in college lacrosse. The Terps had lost two straight national championship games and had not won the title since 1975 despite six recent final four appearances.
But when Maryland defeated Ohio State, 9-6, last May to win the championship, a tough job might have gotten tougher because the Terps have to defend the title.
Alabama football coach Nick Saban recently congratulated Tillman for the victory but also warned him about the new obstacles ahead.
Tillman, an incessant reader, has spent time researching and talking to other coaches about repeating. But the Maryland focus isn’t on defending — it’s on going on the offensive.
Hence, the Terps’ mantra in 2018: “Attacking Champions.”
“Defending means bunkering down, staying put, and we don’t want to do that. We want to get better, we want to improve,” Tillman said. “Instead of being complacent and happy with what we’ve done, I have scrutinized even harder. I have forced myself to look at some ways we want to be different, researched and looked at people who won championships and what they did next.
“We’re not satisfied with one championship. Our goal is to have a great program as far as academics, player and social development and finding available internships and jobs for our players. We want to have a great program, a model program.”
Tillman is trying to maintain a balance in his approach. Because lacrosse is a spring sport and the national championship is played in May, most of Maryland’s student body was off for the summer when the Terps won the title.
There were celebrations, but they were limited. Once schools resumed in the fall, there were more award ceremonies, dinners and other festivities, including a team trip to the White House.
That means the seniors were back on campus and the Terps were still talking about the 2017 season. There was the potential for lazy and big-headed players. At the same time, they had to focus on 2018. Tillman has been juggling both like a clown in the circus.
“You have to be careful,” Tillman said. “That championship was bigger than us; it was about the previous 42 years and all the guys who played here. It was about the state and how important lacrosse is here in Maryland. It was about the students, faculty and coaches, and I can go on and on.
“But you have to move on knowing that you have to work even harder to get where you want to go in 2018.”
The Terps appear to have handled the success well. Goalie Dan Morris and midfielder Connor Kelly said it was surreal going home during the summer. The congratulations keep coming, and it was nice having that delayed gratification when they got back to school.
It certainly beat those postseason meetings the previous two years after they lost in the title games. Finally, after 42 years, the Terps could totally exhale on campus with fellow students.
“It was unbelievable last season and coming back to the campus was awesome, just seeing guys you love,” Kelly said. “But 2017 wrote itself; now in the history books. It’s a new year, new focus.”
Said Morris: “Since I came in as a freshman, we have had extremely hard workers, guys who were passionate about playing. To maximize our potential, we as leaders have to pass that on and the new guys have to do what other Maryland teams have done in the past, which is strive to be the best.”
Winning a national championship should certainly help Maryland’s recruiting. Soon after the title win, Tillman was on the road at tournaments around the country. The biggest knock against the Terps is gone.
“People can’t say we can’t win the big one now,” Tillman said. “Those are some things we heard from recruits, that we can’t get over the hump. Obviously, we can.”
But there are some new hurdles. The Terps lost defensive coordinator Kevin Conry (Michigan head coach) and faceoff coach Chris Mattes (New England Patriots) in the offseason and replaced them with Jesse Bernhardt (coordinator) and Tyler Barbarich (faceoffs). Naturally, there will be a transition period.
They also graduated their top two defensive midfielders in Isaiah Davis-Allen and Nick Manis, defensemen Mac Pons and Tim Muller, and their top three attackmen, Dylan Maltz, Matt Rambo and Colin Heacock, who combined for 99 goals.
Maryland might be a slow starter this season.
“We’re trying to mix and match different lineups, trying to put together the best line, get to know each other on and off the field,” Kelly said. “The best part about Maryland is that we’re an unselfish group. We play off of each other, not focus on one player’s game. We’re always trying to find holes or spots where we can take advantage.”
Maryland has versatility. Kelly was a first-team All-American last season with 46 goals in 16 games. He can play either midfield or attack along with junior Tim Rotanz (33 goals, 11 assists last season). The best attackman on the team might be sophomore Jared Bernhardt (20 goals, eight assists).
The Terps will get plenty of opportunities to score with faceoff specialists Austin Henningsen and Will Bonaparte, and they have two good defensemen in senior Bryce Young and junior Curtis Corley.
And then there is Morris, a senior, who had a .548 save percentage last season.
“We’re still finding out what we are good at and there is going to be some trial and error,” Tillman said. “But that’s what makes it kind of fun. We’ve lost some coaches but it’s not something we haven’t overcome before.
“We have challenges and we talk to our players all the time about getting outside of their comfort zone and evolving to be the best. We can play any style. We can push if people let us, we can dig in if a team wants to be methodical. We should be good off the ground and last year we led the country in shooting percentage. We’re going to be all right.”
They better be. They are now being hunted regardless of whether they are offensive or defensive. They are the defending champions.
“This is an elite program where everybody wants to beat you,” Kelly said. “As a competitor and athlete, that’s what I want. I am looking forward to those matchups this season. We’re very much aware of who we are.”