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Maryland men's lacrosse preview: Terps reloaded and ready for new year

Lacrosse fans can get their first look at Maryland's heralded freshman class in competition on Saturday as the Terps faceoff against Mount St. Mary's. Here are some things to look for Saturday and in the season ahead.

Winslow Townson

Two things became clear in listening to Maryland men's lacrosse coach John Tillman talk about the upcoming season and Saturday's home opener against Mount St. Mary's. Looking forward at the season, fans would be well served to look back at the men's soccer season. And in his comments about playing the Mount, well he sounded almost like Donald Rumsfeld. (For those who don't remember the famous Rumsfeld quote: "...there are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns - there are things we do not know we don't know.")

Regarding looking back at the men's soccer season, as you read what Coach Tillman had to say, please keep in mind how Coach Cirovski talked about the youth on his back line, the difficulty of starting the season with two road games in California, how the season would be a process, and how he expected the team would be playing their best soccer in November and December. In short, if Maryland lacrosse hits some construction detours early in the season, don't panic.

As Cirovski does with soccer, Tillman knows that expectations for lacrosse at Maryland are high. He acknowledges that every team wants to win their league but that at Maryland winning the league and playing on the last weekend in May are underlying expectations. Tillman and his staff aren't talking much about that. They want the team focused on what is in their control such as improving skills and comprehension and getting physically stronger.

As you read this, you'll learn that just as I'm an expansive writer, Coach Tillman is an expansive talker.

Asked whether the he and the staff are achieving some clarity particularly with respect to the attacking midfielders, Tillman said, "We're getting there. I think we have an idea of the groups of guys. We're getting some improvement by some guys which is a good thing. Some guys are getting better but there has been some inconsistency. We're still trying to figure out who the best guys are. What I hoping is that if some of these guys keep improving we'll be able to play a lot of parts which is what would be ideal for us anyway where we'd have more guys sharing, playing at a faster pace knowing that there are other guys who can come and relieve them - that there won't be just three attackmen and six middies that have to carry the weight. We'd like to play more guys and then just play harder and faster."

He added, "We certainly have a long way to go and a lot to learn but we are moving in the right direction. We understand that this isn't going to be a team that's tailor made day one. We hope to get better and better as the season goes along."

And he picked up this recurring theme later on, "We're not a team that can go into a game without being totally focused. We have to value every possession offensively and defensively, every clearing opportunity and every riding opportunity. We're not at a point yet where we can let up or lose focus. It's not clear cut as to which three will be starting at attack, or the first six middies. We're not there yet. We may be different a month from now."

When the players who finished their careers at Maryland last May left the program, they took nearly half of the goals scored in the 2013 season with them. This is a big offensive hole to fill. Right now it seems unclear as to who will emerge on that end of the field for the Terps. "We've tried to assess what we have. We've tried to figure out what these guys are individually and then collectively good at," Tillman said. "To be honest, it's been kind of laboratory on the field. Especially with the younger guys as they develop we're trying to assess what are their strengths. How can we make them feel comfortable? How can we put them in spots where they're going to be successful without being so predictable that we're easy to scout? It's been a little bit of a challenge for us. We want to be a team that does attack in all phases. We're going to try to push the ball when we can. That means knowing that the guys have to have a lot of responsibility with the decisions they're making because we can't push the ball, throw the ball away and then go right back on defense again. So we have to be smart with that."

I asked him specifically about a comparison to the soccer team and developing to the point where the Terps are playing their best lacrosse in late April and May. Here's what he had to say: "It's tricky because to be where we want to be we've got to win some games as we go along. We have to be good enough to win those games early in the season. We start the season playing an in state rival, then another in state rival that beat us the last time we played. Then the next two games are the teams that played in the NCAA Championship last year so we're going to have to be at a level where we can win those games yet we have to continue to improve and emphasize at practice that we're getting better. We're getting better. And then constantly tweaking the schemes, the parts, hopefully some younger guys continue to develop, they get more confidence that'll allow us to do more things with this group. I think what we have to do is really be smart about how many complicated things we're doing. I think for our guys right now simplicity may be important because that will make the guys more comfortable, make the reads easier and allow us to play faster."

So should we temper our expectations, especially early in the season? "I think with our guys we have some unproven commodities but we try to keep the bar pretty high on them in certain aspects of play. We're not asking them to win the game but we do expect that when they step on the filed they'll play like Terps. That means playing hard, playing with passion, understanding all the schemes we're utilizing in every aspect of the game - offense, defense, riding and clearing. We expect them to play unselfishly and be fundamentally sound. We need to focus on how we play together and everybody has to stay committed to the big picture stuff. If guys can fulfill their role we should be okay. We may not be a team that's star driven but we can be a team that's greater than the sum of its parts."

For those of you reading this who are not lacrosse obsessives, this year's freshman class comes to College Park with high expectations. Inside Lacrosse named them the top recruiting class in the nation. So who's standing out through the early practices and scrimmages? "Overall the attitude and the mindset of the freshmen has been great," Tillman told me. "They've come in very humble. They've worked very hard. They've listened. They've tired to take in what it means to be a Terp. What it means to represent our program, our school, our alums and our state as lacrosse players. Overall, they're still learning. Individually, Danny Morris has done a nice job as a goalie. Also, Isaiah Davis-Allen, Matt Rambo, Connor Cannizzaro, and John Belz. Those are the guys who thus far have done the best job and have grasped what we've done so far."

Still another question mark - and this one appears to be a big one for the coaches - has to be who will spell Charlie Raffa at the faceoff X. Last season, Raffa took about three quarters of the faceoffs and senior Curtis Holmes handled most of the others. Just like the situation with the attack and midfield, this spot still seems to open for some healthy competition. Said Tillman, "In our scrimmages, that has probably been question number one for us. That's the question the coaching staffs ask themselves the most - who's developing? Who's going to be there? Charlie was hurt in the fall and last year we had the luxury of having Curtis and Charlie. Charlie's coming back. Jon Garino and Andrew Walsh have made some progress. Michael Bender who's faced off as a long stick so that gives us a really different dynamic. Josh Reinson as a freshman is a really good athlete who we're starting to develop. We're really just waiting to see who's going to reach up and grab it. I'd say Jon Garino is probably in the lead right now based on what we've seen but it's still far from being over." (Note: Raffa also seemed to give the early edge to Garino.)

As for Saturday's opener against the Mount, Tillman said, "Obviously we're excited about the official start of the 2014 season. We're looking forward to playing an in state rival on Saturday."

As I noted above, when asked what he expected to see from this opponent which graduated its top six attackmen, he got a bit "Rumsfeldian" when he responded, "They've obviously undergone some changes not only on their staff but on their team which creates some unknowns for us because you're not sure what you're going to see. As an opener, there's a little bit of concern because you really don't know who you're facing. We're not sure what we're going to see on Saturday. So in practice you spend time saying things like, ‘I'm not sure if we're going to see this but we might see it and we need to be prepared if we do see this.' There's a lot of forecasting. There's a little bit of hypotheticals. In a coach's mindset, not knowing what you're going to face presents different challenges. If we could watch film, that would be the known. Right now we're facing the unknown. With that said, I expect them to be very organized defensively. I expect them to play hard."

As for his team, Tillman expects, "We're going to have feel out some things personnel wise and scheme wise but we expect to play very fast. Early on you'll likely see five attackmen, six or seven midfielders, no less than that in the first half. Four short sticks, 2 or 3 poles a 4 or 5 man rotation defensively.

"We expect to be in the right spots. We want to see the players be unselfish and make the extra pass. We also have to make sure that we don't let people behind us to create transition offense for them."

I know lots of you have been looking forward to this day. So, as Will.I.Am said, "Let's get it started in here!"