It’s been years since men’s college lacrosse saw an undefeated champion.
Virginia was the last team to go unbeaten, and it did so in 2006. That team is considered by many to be one of the best in the history of the sport, and Virginia’s 2021 squad was faced with the opportunity to knock off the undefeated Maryland Terrapins, who stood just one win away from finishing their season as national champions.
The Cavaliers jumped out to a lead, but the Terps fought back. After a goal from Anthony DeMaio brought Maryland within one with just 10.8 seconds remaining, the game rested on a single faceoff.
Luke Wierman, who had been substituted in as Maryland’s top faceoff option when the team fell behind, wrestled the ball free. He scooped it up, rushed toward the goal and fired a shot that promised to keep the Terps’ perfect season alive. The ball sailed through the air and hit something, but it wasn’t the back of the net. It was the body of Virginia goalie Alex Rode, and the ball was quickly picked up by a defenseman and flung to the other side of the field.
Virginia’s bench emptied, and its team dogpiled in celebration of their second consecutive national championship. Maryland’s players crumpled to the ground in dismay, and tears flowed from many who came to the realization that they had fallen just short of the ultimate prize.
“When you end the season like that, you have that sour taste in your mouth,” Brett Makar, a defenseman who returned for his senior season this year after losing in the national championship game as a junior, said. “You’re gonna be really looking forward to getting that next game under your belt and… eventually getting back to the point where [you] were.”
Despite their historical success, the Terps have at times seemed cursed in national championship games. Maryland has made a whopping 15 title games, but it has only won three. Even though the Terps have the highest overall winning percentage of any program, 42 years separated their 1975 and 2017 national championships. Some fans have raised questions about why that is. Is it just bad luck? Is something wrong?
This year’s team is attempting to remedy those worries. They recently finished the program’s second consecutive undefeated regular season, this time with a fully-loaded non-conference schedule and a strong Big Ten slate. As the polls currently stand, Maryland has wins against five top-10 opponents: Rutgers, Virginia, Notre Dame, Princeton and Ohio State.
And to be clear, this team hasn’t just won all their games. They’ve dominated almost all of their opponents. The Terps finished the regular season with a scoring margin of +109, winning by an average of over nine goals per game. Over the last seven games of the season, that number was an average margin of victory of 11.1 goals.
Maryland was rarely challenged in the Big Ten portion of its schedule, but the toughest test came on Apr. 16 against Ohio State. The Terps were down by four goals at one point in the second quarter and trailed in the third, but they finished the game on a 10-2 run to seal a seven-goal victory.
While the Ohio State game proved that Maryland isn’t invincible, it also proved how dynamic and unstoppable they can be. There’s a saying that great teams have to be able to win ugly. Maryland didn’t just win ugly, it won by seven. The ability to play poorly and still easily come out on top is why the Terps are in the position they currently are.
“At times it’s been easy, at times it’s been sloppy and we’ve gotten away with it,” graduate midfielder Roman Puglise said after the game. “We needed a little test.”
Perhaps the main reason why Maryland has been so hard to play against is the fact that it has a plethora of talent at seemingly every position. The Big Ten, considered by many to be the second-strongest conference in the country this season, released their yearly conference honors for men’s lacrosse on Wednesday, and the Terps nearly swept the available awards.
Fifth-year attacker Logan Wisnauskas was named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, Makar was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, Wierman was named Big Ten Specialist of the Year and head coach John Tillman was a unanimous choice for Big Ten Coach of the Year.
The only award that a Maryland player didn’t win was Big Ten Freshman of the Year, and that can be attributed to the lack of available playing time for younger players due to their experienced roster.
Five other players also earned All-Big Ten honors, reaching the maximum of eight players a single team is allowed. There’s no doubt that other Terps were deserving as well.
With all that success comes the burden of high expectations, though, and Tillman has attempted to avoid any distractions and keep his team focused on the task at hand.
“After the Loyola game, I bought three packages of rat poison and put them in our locker room,” he said, referencing a viral press conference moment where Alabama football head coach Nick Saban blamed reporters for distracting his team with praise.
The team has bought into the narrative, unfazed by outside pressure. After Maryland’s game against Rutgers on Apr. 10, Tillman turned to Wisnauskas, who had just set the program’s all-time points record.
“Do you have social media?” Tillman asked.
“Not at the moment, no,” Wisnauskas responded with a straight face.
“How many kids don’t have social media?” Tillman chuckled.
Experienced leaders like Wisnauskas have kept this team grounded and on track. It would be easy for them to buy into the hype and strut into a game banking on their talent to get the job done, but the Terps have entered each game looking more determined than the last.
Next week, Maryland will go for its second straight Big Ten Tournament title, hosting the semifinals and championship game at Capital One Field at Maryland Stadium. There, they will get their first chance to play a team for the second time this season, giving the team insight into what other coaches might try to exploit the second time around.
Even though the pursuit of conference championships is an important one, the Terps are almost assuredly going to be the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament regardless of what happens in the Big Ten Tournament.
With the Final Four returning to East Hartford, Connecticut, this year, the path is clear for the Terps to avenge last year’s heartbreak and flip the script on the same field they suffered that agonizing loss to Virginia a year ago.
As all fans know, however, nothing is guaranteed in sports. Maryland men’s lacrosse has proven time and time again that it takes more than just having a great team to win a championship. It also takes luck, and sometimes you’re just unlucky.
However, there’s no doubt that this year’s team is special. If the Terps run the table and are the last team standing on Memorial Day, they won’t just be national champions. The lacrosse community will have no choice but to consider them among the greatest teams the sport has ever seen.
As the season continues, the finish line inches closer and closer. But there’s still a lot of work to be done. The reality, as unfair as it may be, is that this team won’t be remembered by what they accomplished in February, March or April. It’s about whether or not they can string together four straight wins in May and lay claim to some hardware on Memorial Day.
“It’s just [about] getting better each week,” DeMaio said after Maryland’s 11-goal win over Virginia this season. “It’s not about being the best in March. You’ve got to be the best down the stretch in May.”
As the late great Kobe Bryant famously said when his Los Angeles Lakers took a 2-0 lead in the NBA Finals, “What’s there to be happy about? [The] job’s not finished.”