Championship weekend for NCAA Division I men’s lacrosse will be the final stage for Maryland senior attackman Jared Bernhardt, North Carolina senior attackman Chris Gray and Duke graduate student attackman Michael Sowers to fortify their candidacies for the Tewaaraton Award, the sport’s version of the Heisman Trophy.
As far as Nick Myers is concerned, Bernhardt has made any argument moot.
“No doubt. Player of the Year. One hundred percent,” said Myers, Ohio State’s coach.
Elaborating on his opinion, Myers said of Bernhardt, “His explosiveness and power around the cage is what makes him a little different from Sowers and Gray. Those three are the best attackmen in the country, but with Bernhardt, he’s different from Gray and Sowers because of his grittiness and his physicality in addition to his explosive speed.”
Quickness, strength, experience and IQ are only a sampling of the words directed Bernhardt’s way in what has been a record-setting season for the Florida native who wears the No. 1 jersey, an iconic number for the Terps.
Bernhardt and Maryland (14-0), the No. 3 seed, will seek to capture the program’s fourth national championship with a semifinal date against No. 2 seed Duke (14-2) on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Connecticut. A win would propel the team to Monday’s title game at 1 p.m. against either No. 1 seed North Carolina (13-2) or No. 4 seed Virginia (12-4).
As he has been for three years, Bernhardt will be the top priority in every opposing defense’s scouting report. He is the school’s career leader in goals with 195 (No. 2 Matt Rambo had 155) and points with 278 (Rambo had 257) and owns the single-season record for goals with 64 (Mark Douglas had 52 in 1991).
Bernhardt, who leads the nation in goals and points per game (4.6 and 6.2, respectively), amassed six goals and one assist in a 17-11 victory over Vermont in the first round May 16 and then scored five goals in a 14-13 overtime win against No. 6 seed Notre Dame on Sunday.
All of this raises the question: how can a defense stop Bernhardt and — by transitive property — the Terps offense? Here are some perspectives from those who know and have tried:
Would straight-up man-to-man defense work?
Myers: “I think you’re kidding yourself if you think you can put one guy out there. I know that Duke may have the best defender in the country arguably [in graduate student defenseman JT Giles-Harris], another guy who is right there as a first-team All-American. But I think it’s a mistake to think that one guy is going to take him out of the game. No one has done it this year.”
Johns Hopkins defensive coordinator Jamison Koesterer, whose unit limited Bernhardt to a season-low three points in a 12-10 loss in the Big Ten tournament final May 8: “The plan was to keep [junior defenseman] Owen McManus on him as much as we could, but with a kid like Jared, you can’t keep that matchup the whole game. Everybody’s going to have to be ready to cover him because you’re going to slide to him and you’re going to have to switch because he runs off of picks really hard. So if you go into the game with the mindset that you’re going to keep one guy on him the whole time, I think you’re just setting yourself up for failure. We had everybody ready to play him, knowing that we all were going to have to do the job and have to help and support each other.”
OK. How about a zone?
Rutgers coach Brian Brecht: “Then you’re talking about zoning up the whole Maryland offense. You’ve got him on the right side, [senior attackman Logan] Wisnauskas on the left side, [sophomore attackman Daniel] Maltz as a great shooter and finisher, [senior midfielder] Bubba [Fairman] as a scorer, [junior midfielder Kyle] Long as a great feeder and shooter and dodger. We didn’t zone him, and we weren’t planning on zoning him.”
Koesterer: “You don’t see him press the issue. He doesn’t have a lot of turnovers, he doesn’t take a lot of bad shots. He’s a pretty good feeder. He doesn’t have a lot of flaws in his game.”
What about shutting off Bernhardt?
Koesterer: “They have five other really good players. If you shut somebody off, you have to play five-on-five, but now you have to play five-on-five in space with Logan Wisnauskas and Daniel Maltz and Bubba Fairman and [senior midfielder] Anthony DeMaio and Kyle Long and even some of those other guys. I don’t think that’s the right answer. I wouldn’t do that.”
Former Johns Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala, who will serve as an in-studio analyst for ESPN: “I think that’s a really hard thing to do because he’s just so darn athletic and you’d have to use a pole to do it.”
So a double team?
Myers: “But then just keep in mind that if you go early to him, Maltz is going to have a five- or six-goal day or it’s Logan. He’s proven that time and time again. The first time we played them, he had three goals. But then look at what his teammates did [Wisnauskas and Maltz had four goals each]. We made him the primary focus, and he’s OK, but if you do that, you’re letting his teammates do what they do. So it really is kind of a pick-your-poison deal.”
Pietramala: “One of the things we did with [former Albany attackman] Lyle Thompson was when Tucker Durkin played him and Jack Reilly played him, we supported to him before he got to a dangerous area because we just felt like if we let him get to a dangerous area, he was going to hurt us. So if you can limit [Bernhardt’s] touches a little bit, make him work to get the ball a little bit more, maybe that’s three or four or five times in a half when he doesn’t touch the ball. If you can support to him maybe earlier than you would like, it gives you a little bit more time to react, and it doesn’t allow him to be in such a dangerous area that he can either run by your slide or run through it or look through your defense.”
Force Bernhardt to his left hand?
Brecht: “You can’t shade and overcommit too much because it opens up too much of the other side, and with his athletic ability and his speed, he looks like he got shot out of a cannon. Yeah, he’s predominantly right-handed, but he’s just as prolific with his left hand. Yeah, he’s strong right, but he’s a first-team All American and the best player in the country, and he has a Ieft hand.”
Myers: “You can try. I can show you film of people trying to do that, too. He’s got a very capable left hand. … We forced him to his left hand in our game the second time, and he went up the island and scored on a dodge rolling back to his right running away from the goal into their bench. It’s like, ‘OK, well …’ Those are the kinds of goals you just have to tip your hat.”
Ultimately, it is up to Duke to coordinate a strategy to slow Bernhardt. Coach John Danowski compared Bernhardt favorably to Hofstra midfielder Doug Shanahan (the inaugural Tewaaraton Award recipient in 2001), Syracuse attackmen Casey and Mikey Powell (the latter a Tewaaraton winner in 2002 and 2004), and Duke attackman and son Matt Danowski (the Tewaaraton winner in 2007).
“You do the best you can,” the elder Danowski said Tuesday. “You put your best player on him, and you slide when it’s necessary, and you try to bluff him a little bit when you can. But he’s a phenomenal athlete.”
Similarly, the Terps will rely on Bernhardt to initiate the offense. But Maryland coach John Tillman said Bernhardt’s value goes beyond goals and assists.
“It’s that confidence, the swagger, the leadership, the mentality,” Tillman said earlier in the season. “Certain guys have that, and I think he’s really added that, and that’s something that I think [2017 Tewaaraton recipient] Matt Rambo provided a lot of times for us on the offensive end. Just always walked on the field confidently, not arrogantly, but just had that level of confidence of, ‘Hey, guys, follow me,’ and the guys just like to follow him. They believe in Jared. You wish you had a lot of guys like that, but there just aren’t many guys like that in college lacrosse. We’re lucky to have him.”
NCAA MEN’S LACROSSE
at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Connecticut
Saturday’s DI semifinals
No. 1 seed North Carolina vs. No. 4 seed Virginia, noon
No. 2 seed Duke vs. No. 3 seed Maryland, Saturday, 2:30 p.m.
Latest College Lacrosse
Championship game: Monday, 1 p.m.