For the first time in over 40 years, the Maryland men’s lacrosse team will be looking to repeat as National Champions.
The road to Gillette Stadium in Foxborough will begin with a tested Robert Morris (13-4, 4-2) team that won its play-in game against Canisius, the other lowest ranked automatic qualifier, in convincing fashion on Wednesday.
“There are no easy games in the NCAA Tournament anymore as the sport has evolved. Robert Morris is as good as advertised,” head coach John Tillman said. “Everybody I’ve talked to since Saturday has echoed how good a team Robert Morris is and how dangerous they are.”
The Terps (12-3, 4-1) were selected as the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament for a third consecutive season, making it to the title game in each of those postseasons. It took an incredibly strong senior class to finally get over the hump of winning that championship last season, after losing four of their seven prior title appearances since Tillman joined the team in 2011.
Senior captain defenseman Bryce Young said he’s ready to for this senior class to step up to make another deep postseason run this year.
“A lot of people talk about the seniors from last year and all their accomplishments and everything they’ve done,” Young said. “But they keep bringing those guys up and saying we lost a lot, but I think we have all we need to make a deep run at championship weekend. That’s what I’m excited for.”
The No. 1 Terps are coming off a Big Ten Tournament championship loss to Johns Hopkins, who earned the fifth-seed in what could be a potential semifinal matchup with the current bracket setup. Despite that being the last opportunity for the senior class to win another Big Ten Tournament championship, Young said the message moving forward will be having the potential to play four more games.
Those games will need to see noticeable improvement from the defensive end.
“We just didn’t play as well as we could have and that starts with me, I committed three penalties, three costly penalties,” said Young. “I think that starts with me and the older guys like Curtis Corley and Dan Morris, if we don’t show out to play then it’s going to be a long day.”
While this senior class is the most experienced class in all of college lacrosse having been to the last three title games, freshman players like Bubba Fairman have a great amount of experience from the high school level.
Fairman, a Utah native but spent a postgrad season at Deerfield Academy (Massachusetts), won two high school state championships at Brighton in Utah as well as another while boarding a Huntington school called The Calverton School in Maryland.
“When I was at Deerfield, it was our last game of the year against Exeter, who’s a really good team. We were down by two or three goals with a couple minutes left, came back, tied it up to go into overtime and won it,” Fairman said. “I thought it was very similar to our Rutgers and Johns Hopkins games, we were down a couple goals and came back and won it.”
While the faster pace of play in college made for a tough initial adjustment in Fairman’s eyes, he has improved on slowing the game down.
“I think for me personally the biggest thing was seeing the game and slowing it down, when I first came here it was so fast I really didn’t get to see the field as much,” Fairman said. “I didn’t really have that vision but the older guys really helped me out with that and told me where I’m supposed to be to help the offense run smoothly.”
The offense has been running smoothly recently for the Terps, often reliant on senior midfielder Connor Kelly to produce offensively. The Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year recipient was recently named on the shortlist of the five finalists for the best player of the year award in college lacrosse, known as the Tewaaraton.
Kelly recently joined Joe Walters and Matt Rambo as the only players to score over 70 points in a season, – 73 points (40 goals, 33 assists) – while all three players remain the only Terps to be named for the final five nominees for the Tewaaraton Award, which began in 2001.
“I’m excited, a lot of the older guys have set the precedent for what it’s going to be like. I think our coach, seniors – especially the captains – have done such a good job of setting the pace and allowing us to feel a real sense of urgency on the season,” said Fairman.
Maryland will need offensive execution against a fast-paced Robert Morris team.
“Playing two games in three days and coming back on a Wednesday to win with a backup goalie,” Tillman said, “and get out in transition as well as they did, we’re going to have to do a great job of getting back.”
The Colonials boast one of the nation’s top goalies, junior goalie and team MVP Alex Heger – who missed the play-in game due to a lower-body injury. Reger has made the second most saves per game in the nation this year.
His replacement, sophomore goalie Chris Reynolds, made six stops while the defense stepped up as a whole to get past the MAAC champs.
“I think you have to prepare for both,” Tillman said. “Obviously [Heger]’s had a tremendous year. We’ll have an idea of both guys, and with a guy who’s only played in four games this year, and to limit them to six goals and less than 15 shots on goal, I thought the defense really stepped up.”
Tillman said despite the varying goalie-styles of the two goalies, having a bigger right-handed goalie in senior Dan Morris and a left-handed smaller goalie in freshman Drew Morris helps the offense prepare during the week. That preparation will be key in getting Maryland off to a good start, something the Terps have struggled with recently.
The senior group will need to do a better job of preparing the team before the game and after halftime. The Terps have been outscored 16-8 in the first and third quarters in their last two losses.
“That’s on me, I’ve got to do a better job getting these guys ready and prepared to do a better job in the first and third quarters,” said Tillman. “We can’t get consumed by it, but it is something we want to pay some attention to.”
For the senior class, getting the team pumped for what will be their final chance to play in Maryland Stadium shouldn’t be too difficult.
“Last game will be an emotional one as the last time I’ll put on a jersey on in Maryland Stadium, and you know this stadium has brought me a ton of great memories,” Young said. “To get out of here with a win would be awesome and if I could speak for the rest of the seniors, this place means a lot to us.”
That final home game for the seniors will start at 12 p.m. on Sunday in Maryland Stadium and can be watched live on ESPNU.
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