Since joining the Big Ten in 2015, the Maryland men’s lacrosse program has seen an influx of talent in the conference. In turn, the No. 1 Terps have greatly benefited.
Making the switch from the historically great Atlantic Coast Conference to the newly-formed Big Ten three seasons ago, Maryland (9-1, 2-0) has not only added legitimacy to the first year conference, but it has also added some success to their own postseason play.
“We just felt like when the Big Ten decided to create the conference, you look at what the Big Ten has done in every sport—they’re very competitive,” head coach John Tillman said. “So there’s no reason to believe it wouldn’t happen in lacrosse too.”
During the three seasons Maryland has competed in the Big Ten conference, the Terps have gone to three straight National Championship games, while winning two Big Ten titles in the process. Redshirt senior midfielder Tim Rotanz, who has played in both the ACC and the Big Ten, said the Big Ten has prepared Maryland for longer runs in the postseason.
“We got a really tough conference; they’re always good games and that’s what you ask for,” Rotanz said. “To get battle tested going into the postseason and playing these teams, it’s good to play well in conference play to build up your reputation.”
The Big Ten currently has five of its six teams ranked inside the top 20, with just last season runner up Ohio State looking in from the outside. Last season, the conference looked like it was going to send every team besides Michigan, until Rutgers ultimately were snubbed on selection Sunday.
The ACC, on the other hand, has taken a step back as the powerhouse conference in college lacrosse. The resurgent No. 12 Virginia Cavaliers missed the tournament the last two seasons in what was seemingly unprecedented for an ACC squad to miss the postseason.
After all, last season’s all-Big Ten final between Ohio State and Maryland could signal more success for the conference in the years ahead.
“I’m not surprised the conference is doing well as it is,” said Tillman. “I just know how much talent,and the coaching staffs,and the great ability they have and the support that’s put forward. It’s really been a pleasant thing to see how well the Big Ten has done just so quickly.”
The gap has been closing rapidly the last two seasons, shown best through Michigan’s program-defining 13-12 upset win over Notre Dame earlier this season, forcing players like senior goalie Dan Morris to take notice.
“Yeah the Big Ten is just getting better and better every year,” Morris said. “It’s getting more competitive with teams like Michigan taking down big time programs like Notre Dame this year. It just shows how these programs are just going to keep getting better; it’s going to get more competitive and the Big Ten is a premier conference.”
The Big Ten has also been recognized for its elevated recruiting as three teams featured in Inside Lacrosse’s 2017 recruiting class, including Michigan. Morris, who came to Maryland while they were still in the ACC, said Maryland’s presence throughout the conference’s existence has helped in that respect.
“I’d say because Maryland and Hopkins have been more established programs, that might’ve had a little something to do with it,” Morris said. “The Big Ten just has a bunch of academic and athletic schools and I think student-athletes are realizing that.”
The increased talent and competition level in the conference is exemplified by Maryland’s next opponent, the No. 8 Rutgers Scarlet Knights. Since their woeful 5-10 inaugural season in the Big Ten, Rutgers have put together three impressive seasons.
Briefly ranked at the No. 1 spot before losing to the University of Delaware last season, Rutgers has shown glimpses of playoff potential. Historically a program with nine postseason appearances, Rutgers hasn’t been back to the NCAA Tournament since 2004.
Still, Rotanz was reminiscent of a Rutgers team that took Maryland to task in an eventual 9-8 Terrapin win during his sophomore year. That meeting foreshadowed a number of close affairs between the two programs.
Most recently, it took three overtimes for Maryland to overcome Rutgers in Piscataway, New Jersey, as then-junior midfielder Connor Kelly notched the game-winner to complete his hat trick with 55 seconds left on the clock.
Rutgers star junior attackman Jules Heningburg is a big example of not only Rutgers’ success this season, but also the Big Ten as a whole. Heningburg has 57 points through 11 games thus far, tied for ninth points per game (5.18). The Maplewood, New Jersey, native dazzles with highlight-reel plays, especially with fakes like these.
“You know you get a chance every year to get to know each other in terms of personnel and schemes, so every year when you play you know them and kind of go into it thinking it’s going to be a really close game,” Tillman said. “Most of these teams don’t have very many weaknesses, so you got to play well week in and week out.”
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