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Maryland men’s lacrosse is seeking to overcome its Cavalier curse

With another postseason matchup against Virginia looming, the Terps are looking to flip the script against a familiar foe.

Photo courtesy of Zach Bland/Maryland Athletics

Here we go again.

It’s 2022 and Maryland and Virginia are once again set to face off in the NCAA Men’s Lacrosse Tournament.

A postseason contest between the Terps and Cavaliers is becoming an annual tradition, with the teams meeting in each of the last two NCAA tournaments. Virginia won both of those matchups en route to national championships.

In recent years, the Cavaliers have been the bane of Maryland’s championship hopes.

In 2019, the teams met in the quarterfinals. That game was held in Hempstead, New York, on the campus of Hofstra University, the host of a pair of quarterfinal games this year — Penn vs. Rutgers and Yale vs. Princeton.

Maryland had the third-seeded Cavaliers fully on the ropes, leading by four goals with just 3:26 remaining in the fourth quarter. But, Virginia stormed back, scoring three goals in the next 44 seconds to cut the Terps’ lead down to one. With 1:20 left in the game, Virginia attackman Michael Kraus stepped into a shot that beat Maryland goalie Danny Dolan. That shot, however, rattled off the crossbar and landed some 50 feet away from the cage. All of the sudden, though, the officials blew their whistles and indicated that Virginia had scored, tying the game and forcing overtime.

The extra period didn’t last more than 45 seconds before Matt Moore sent the Cavaliers to the Final Four in Philadelphia, where they would win the national championship just over a week later with victories over Duke and Yale.

Fast forward to last season.

The Terps beat the Blue Devils in the 2021 national semifinals, advancing to the title game with an opportunity to be crowned as undefeated national champions. They ran into a red-hot Virginia team once again, and fell behind early. This time it was Maryland that battled back, and they nearly pulled off a late comeback. Yet, the luck needed to win a national championship once again belonged to Virginia. Goalie Alex Rode made a clutch save as time was expiring to seal the game, and the Cavaliers once again brought the sport’s most important trophy back to Charlottesville with a 17-16 win.

The result of that game has fueled the Terps this entire season, with the singular goal of redeeming themselves on the sport’s biggest stage at the forefront of conversation all throughout 2022.

“At the beginning of the season, [defensive coordinator Jesse] Bernhardt put up little post-it [notes] of the score,” goalie Logan McNaney said. “I don’t think we should be letting up 17 goals.”

Defenseman Brett Makar echoed McNaney and the team’s sentiment. “We didn’t finish the job last year and [we] think about guys that were on the team like Jared [Bernhardt] and Nick Grill [that] aren’t with us anymore. [We] want to finish it for them as well,” he said before one of Maryland’s practices.

Almost a year after the classic 2021 title game, Maryland and Virginia fans find themselves at odds once more. If you had told most that the Terps and Cavaliers would be meeting this May, they would’ve assumed that they would be facing off on Memorial Day. Instead, the two teams that are considered by many to be the most talented in the country were set on a collision course to meet in the tournament’s quarterfinals at Ohio Stadium in Columbus, Ohio, just over a week prior to the holiday.

Maryland head coach John Tillman is using his team’s tournament draw as motivation.

“[For the] second year in a row, we’re playing an ACC team in a quarterfinal. [I] scratch my head a little bit about that… maybe they just didn’t feel like we had a very good year,” Tillman said of his team, which has won all 15 games so far this season by an average of over nine goals. “We have to just go out and prove to everybody that we deserve to keep going here… we’ll just be thankful for the opportunity we have and be motivated to kind of prove everybody wrong.”

Even if it has come earlier than expected, the entire lacrosse community knew this was going to happen. There was just simply no chance Maryland and Virginia weren’t going to play in this year’s NCAA tournament. It was destiny and everyone was aware of it. When Maryland and Virginia fans departed Audi Field in Washington, D.C. following the teams’ regular-season showdown in mid-March, nobody said goodbye. Instead, everyone said the same four words.

“See you in May.”

That regular season meeting — an 11-goal Maryland win — was pegged as revenge for the 2021 national championship game. It was a satisfying sight for Terps fans to see their team run up the score against the Cavaliers, but that game wasn’t revenge. Sunday’s game, which presents an opportunity to send the two-time reigning champions home packing back to Charlottesville, could be classified as revenge. For Virginia, though, the chance to keep playing and move closer to a third consecutive national championship is motivation enough to bring out the team’s best.

However, this is 2022 Maryland vs. 2022 Virginia. These are two different teams than last year, and different teams from March at that. They’re fighting to keep their seasons alive and advance to the Final Four. Nothing that happens on Sunday can change what happened last year, in 2019 or in any other previous matchup.

This game is about surviving and advancing. It’s about writing a new chapter in the history books of the respective programs. It’s about beating the best to be the best.

In a year where historical powerhouses like Syracuse, Johns Hopkins and Duke didn’t qualify for the postseason, Sunday’s game promises a sort of salvation for the traditional powers of college lacrosse. Virginia has been the class of the sport over the past decade or so, and Maryland has been historically dominant this season. Only one will carry on.

“[These are] the defending national champions and they’re champions until you beat them. So, we have to show that in the playoffs we can do that,” Tillman said. “We need to kind of have an underdog mentality because they are the guys that have the crown and you have to take it from them.”

From a Maryland perspective — other than having the teams play again in East Hartford — you couldn’t write a better script than this.