The difference between the two coaches at Maryland lacrosse media day was striking. Understandable, but striking nevertheless. Cathy Reese, head coach of the defending National Champion women's lacrosse team was upbeat and buoyant about the upcoming season while men's head coach John Tillman was cautious and serious.
Of course, Reese returns 10 of her 12 starters, the reigning Tewaaraton Award winner, three preseason All-America senior co-captains and the nation's top high school recruit. Tillman, on the other hand, had to deal with an off season that included a coaching change (addition of J.L. Reppert), dismissal of a student assistant coach (Brian Cooper), indefinite suspension of a star freshman (now sophomore) attackman (Matt Rambo), early departure of a first-team All-America defenseman (Goran Murray), and graduation of three more All-Americans (Michael Chanenchuk, Michael Ehrhardt and Niko Amato) from his Final Four squad.
The suspension of Matt Rambo has likely weighed on the minds of Terrapins men's lacrosse fans since the November announcement. TIllman tackled the issue in his opening remarks:
One thing I will address, I know a couple people have asked about the status of Matt Rambo. Matt is currently on our roster. Matt's situation long and short is there was an incident he was involved with in the fall; there was some allegations made, some very serious ones.
There was an investigation done by the office of student conduct; it was a very thorough one, it was a lengthy one, it was a very fair one. Their decision was to retain Matt based on facts so he will be here at the University of Maryland based on the decisions they made. Obviously, they take any of those allegations very seriously. In terms of Matt and playing, even though Matt was allowed to stay there are certain standards we have in our program that are always going to be higher than the typical student here at Maryland and in many times other programs.
Matt has some consequences and some expectations he is going to have to fulfill before he is back on the field. He's doing a great job with the things we've asked him to do. Once he gets to the point where I feel that he can represent Maryland, he will be back on the field. If he continues to do the things the way he's been doing them, he'll be back pretty soon. I felt like it was important to be transparent and open about that.
In keeping with the manner in which the Big Ten schedules its season, the schedule is front loaded with non-conference games. The Terps will face Big Ten opponents in five of the final six regular season games, culminating with the game in College Park against Johns Hopkins. Only a home game against local rival and 2012 National Champion Loyola breaks the stretch of conference games.
We're excited about the schedule - it's a very competitive one from beginning to end. One of the things I think the kids are really excited about is going out to California over spring break. That's something we haven't done before and it's something our kids can really look to when we get out to California just to change things up a little bit.
The schedule includes a trip to California where the Terrapins will face the fifth-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels. In addition to the Greyhounds and the Tar Heels, three other squads on Maryland's non-conference schedule are ranked in the top 20 of the Inside Lacrosse preseason poll and three others are in the "receiving votes" category. Johns Hopkins and Penn State join Maryland as the ranked teams from the Big Ten.
I would say one thing about this years schedule is I don't see any easy games. I'm not sure there are many anymore but we better be ready every game and that's something we preach to our team but I think our kids get excited about those games. They force you to be focused, prepared, and ready for a battle every time you go out.
In his opening statement, Tillman talked about taking a slightly different approach this season.
It's obviously a very exciting time for us starting the 2015 season. We got back together as a group January eighth - actually came back a little later this year to give the guys a little bit of a longer break. And then since then we really tried to come together as a team and give guys some opportunities to also fight for some open positions. In that time, much like a lot of programs, when you're playing January lacrosse there's got to be some strategy in terms of trying to deal with the weather and trying to minimize some of your injuries. But also being productive and getting guys in game shape to create that mental toughness you need to be successful and also not push too hard. We've had our good days and bad days. We've had good leadership from our two captains this year who we're really excited about. Charlie Raffa and Casey Ikeda are doing a really great job as captains so far and we're excited about them continuing to feel more comfortable and growing each day much like our team is.
He later added, "We're excited about where we're going. We're not even close to where we need to be, but we are making progress."
Before taking a look at the units and some of the individuals Terps fans can expect to see on the field, Tillman shared some interesting thoughts about team development and winning games:
We want to play a lot (of different players). That's what the two scrimmages are going to let us know. Where are we. Who can do it? Is there a big drop off? I'm committed to trying to develop guys so that late in the year, we're not at the point where we're relying on just a few. But you've got to win games. So you're torn because if you stick with the notion ‘I have to develop depth' and you lose a game you may not get the opportunity to play in the playoffs. So you're walking the fine line between developing for the future and winning in the here and now is such a fine line. In a lot of close games, a game can turn on a guy throwing the ball away and they come down on a fast break and get momentum.
Now our side's got the ball
Every lacrosse game starts with faceoffs. And Maryland's returning specialist, Charlie Raffa, is among the very best in the NCAA (and certainly better than John Travola or Nicolas Cage). Though he spent much of the off season rehabbing and says he feels healthier than he has in any of his four years at Maryland, keeping Raffa healthy and developing a backup for him is clearly a concern for Tillman. He was not certain how much action the senior would see in the two preseason scrimmages against Towson and Cornell and added,
We're trying to develop some other guys and get them some opportunities. We're trying to get John Garino and Andrew Walsh geared up so they can take some pressure off Charlie. We would ideally like to give them five to eight faceoffs a game so that over the course of a season that saves a lot of wear and tear.
Raffa indicated that he felt he would be unaffected by the rule change that no longer allows players to use the back of the crosse on faceoffs. "I didn't use it at all my first two years," he said. "I learned how to do it going into last season, but it's not something I relied on."
Some say the best defense is a good offense (though those of us who suffered through the Dudley Moore / Eddie Murphy movie were probably just offended). Let's assume Raffa does what he has done so well and wins the faceoff and Maryland goes on the offensive. Two players who will certainly not be on the attack for Maryland are Michael Chanenchuk (graduated) and Connor Cannizarro (transferred). With Tillman waiting for confirmation that his sophomore attackman has learned, "In the field we had a code of honor, you watch my back, I watch yours." (First Blood. Look it up!), who can Terps fans expect to see taking charge of the offense? According to the coach,
Right now, I think we'll find out a lot (in the two exhibitions). At attack we're still working on some guys but I'd say Jay Carlson is probably the leader down there. He's played a lot. He's one of the most unique players I've ever coached. Every day Jay does something that you just can't explain or predict. Dylan Maltz has done a good job so far. David Goodwin has played really well. Ian Robertson has really improved from last year so I would say those would be our leading guys down in attack.
"Now I'm assuming you can clean this little mess." Or so said Frank Griffin. Although he didn't have lacrosse in mind when he said it, given the job of a midfielder, it seems at least obliquely applicable. Tillman talked about his long stick midfielders and his short stick midfielders. At long stick, he will have to replace the departed Michael Ehrhardt a defenseman who moved up to that spot and finished as an All-American. According the coach,
Right now I'd say Michael McCarney and Matt Neufeldt would probably be the lead guys. Mike Bender and Mac Pons have also played some in the past. We're looking to see who's going to step up. We're looking at different options and developing chemistry and who plays best together. Sometimes who plays and who plays where could depend on who we're playing and if we see different match-ups that we like.
Then, of course, we have the short sticks of whom Tillman said,
Isaiah Davis-Allen is playing really well right now. He's been fantastic. He's done a really good job on all levels - leadership, defensive things, ground balls. He's really evolved the way we would have liked. Ultimately, we'd like to play four. The scrimmages will teach us a lot about where we are there.
Clearly, this is a unit in flux and who those four players will be very much undecided. And the season opener is less than 10 days away.
DEFENSE OF THE REALM
You would agree, would you not, that certain things bearing on the defense of the realm are best left unsaid.
Perhaps. But perhaps not. Certainly defense has been a hallmark of Tillman's Terrapins teams. However, the 2015 Terps have to deal with not only the graduation of goalkeeper Niko Amato and the departure of his fellow All-American Goran Murray, but also losing Brian Cooper, a third member of that unit who has moved on. So, what's a coach to do?
Every year at a place like Maryland we tell our kids all the time, we're going to lose some really good players. That's just how it is. When you're coaching in college, you don't have the ability to have guys for long term. You're going to lose really good players every year and you only get them for four. So you have to be okay with change and making those transitions and developing players.
Matt Dunn has gotten a lot of playing time over the last couple years. Casey Ikeda obviously being a captain. With Michael Ehrhardt's transition to long stick midfield those two guys were on the field a lot. They're really our quarterbacks and knowing they're back for us is huge. We play a system for the reason that if a guy goes down, you plug another guy in the system should take care of itself. Everybody's got to buy into the system. If one guy breaks down, you're going to have some problems.
Though he stressed Maryland's "system," he did add later, "We're not there yet and it's going to take a little while but I know, I trust, the guys that are down there. I know they're going to give it everything they have. And I feel good about that."
END OF THE LINE
There any seat belts in these things?
So it's not a Kevin Bacon line but at least it's a Kevin Bacon movie. And what is a goalie if not the end of the line? We've mentioned previously that Amato has moved on. Where does that leave the Terps? It leaves them with a two-man competition between senior Kyle Bernlohr and sophomore Dan Morris.
Right now, Danny Morris and Kyle were the two guys coming back with experience. I felt like after the fall, Kyle had separated himself a little bit but Danny was certainly in the conversation. Right now Kyle's in the lead but Danny's made a lot of progress over the last few weeks. Right now we feel like we have two guys who could play and we feel very confident that both those guys would play well for us.
So, there you have it. The Terps had their first exhibition at Towson and will quickly back that up with another scrimmage against Cornell Saturday afternoon at Byrd Stadium. The games get real just a week later with Maryland's season opener at Navy.