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Seemingly always one win away, Maryland lacrosse not shaken by the failures

Maryland head coach John Tillman during the third quarter in College Park. Maryland defeated the Heels, 11-8.
Maryland head coach John Tillman during the third quarter in College Park. Maryland defeated the Heels, 11-8. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

COLLEGE PARK — John Tillman might have the most difficult job in Division I mens' lacrosse.

Few of his peers can match his record in the six years he has been Maryland's coach. He has been to the title game in four of those years, but hasn't won a championship. He lost in the 2015 and 2016 title games.

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The question is how Tillman handles the failures, especially after last season when the Terps lost 14-13 in overtime to North Carolina in what was perhaps their best chance at a championship in nearly a decade.

"Every year is different, every year you are presented with different situations," Tillman said. "The ball sometimes takes funny bounces, and there are some things you just can't control, like running into a hot goalie or shots hitting the pipe.

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"But you can't be end result-driven. I think we have represented Maryland the right way, where people here are proud. The players are graduating, our team grade point average is high, the kids are having fun and I think we have created a good culture. What we can't afford to do is lose the same game twice."

Some of this sounds corny and in a way self-satisfying for a coach who hasn't won The Big One, but that's not Tillman. He is an honest man who works hard at his craft, and he offers no excuses.

He has to deal with the psychology of 18-22-year-old boys who constantly hear about the Terps failures in the postseason, and it's not an easy job.

The Buffalo Bills failed to win a Super Bowl in four straight appearances from 1990-1993. And sports fans in Cleveland hadn't won a major league sports championship for 52 years until forward LeBron James led the Cavaliers to an NBA title last year.

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They were paid professionals. The Terps are amatuers still carrying around Godzilla.

"If you get into the conference tournament, you know that if you lose then your season is over," Tillman said. "Most lacrosse coaches lose their last game of the season. It's not like major college football where you can lose and still get rewarded with a bowl game. We understand that, so the kids know there is only going to be really one happy team after the last game of the lacrosse season.

"When you lose that last game you know that a lot of the kids are hurting, and it's important that we all help each other through that time. And you're hoping that if you have done things in a certain way that your players will not only get through that but other adversities throughout their lives like illnesses or death of parents. It all goes back to the foundations of who you are, and we've worked hard on that."

So, it's not like Tillman encourages or discourages talking about the program's losses in title games. He just doesn't seem to care because he is happy with the program.

In six seasons, Tillman has led to the Terps to five NCAA tournament semifinals. He has produced the more All-Americans (38) and Major League Lacrosse Draft selections (28) than any other school in the nation in that time.

The Terps have won 32 games over the last two seasons, the most in the country, and have won at least 10 games in each of the past 14 seasons.

Off the field, the team had its highest grade point average in program history last year and ranked second among all of Maryland's men's teams, behind golf.

Tillman hasn't been afraid to go through his program at the end of the season to find something that might put the Terps over the proverbial hump, but he doesn't want to micro-manage. Practices are basically the same, and he still throws in a wrinkle to keep things fun, such as taking the team to a movie, a Brazilian steakhouse or a pro hockey game.

He regularly brings in alumni to speak to the team —least eight have been on campus since the first week of January. If it's not broke there is no need for a lot of changes.

"That is what I try to focus on," Tillman said. "Over the summer and before you start up, you look at all of the aspects of the program and we really challenge ourselves as to what we need to do to get better. Part of that can be strength and conditioning, it could be nutrition or it could be social media. It could be how we practice, and our style of play. It's all fair game.

"But you also have to look at what you've done in the past and keep that foundation in place. We were close to winning a championship, but you have to have closure and move on. The kids are counting on you to have a clear head and a good vision. We have hit the reset button."

Tillman was able to move on because recruiting starts immediately after the NCAA championship game. A lot of the players start moving back home for the summer or begin jobs.

Just like last season, the Terps are expected to be strong again. They return their starting attack of Matt Rambo, Colin Heacock, and Dylan Maltz. They have their best cover guy back on defense in Tim Muller, and another strong defensemen in Mac Pons. Isaiah Davis-Allen is back as their top short stick midfielder, but Maryland has to find more midfielders. They lost their top four guys from last year.

"There are new opportunities, which are really exciting," Tillman said. "There are new guys and guys that have been here working their butts off and they are super excited about making an impact. I love this team; it's a great group to be around, and I think they really like each other. There is a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of humility. The older guys are sending a message to the younger guys about 'This is how we do it; this is what it means to be a Terp.' It's part of a healthy environment here."

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