Much of the narrative surrounding Maryland’s men’s lacrosse team this season has been plagued by unrealistic expectations.
How could it not? The Terps entered their 2023 campaign coming off arguably the best season in the sport’s history. In that season, they went 18-0, waltzed their way to a national championship and raked in virtually every team or individual award there is to offer. They seemed invincible. Anything less than that would require a natural adjustment period for those that had become accustomed to watching the Terps roll their opponents with ease.
But on Saturday night, Maryland looked far from perfect. It showed flashes of brilliance from stars like Braden Erksa and Daniel Maltz, but didn’t have enough to push itself over the finish line, falling by a goal to Johns Hopkins. In “The Rivalry,” the margins are slim, and the Terps were caught on the wrong side of the postgame celebration almost exactly a year after they handed Johns Hopkins the most lopsided loss in its history, 22-7. This time, they could only watch in sheer disappointment as their biggest rivals took triumphant photos with the series’ trophy that had made itself at home in College Park of late.
“Unfortunately, it just feels like we made a lot of mistakes tonight,” Maryland head coach John Tillman said after the game. “... Felt like we looked like a team with a lot of guys playing in this game for the first time. And I think some guys played very well, and I think we made some uncharacteristic mistakes.”
The things that made the Terps so dominant a season ago were absent. The pinpoint passing that diced up opposing defenses was replaced by oft-errant exchanges, including an airmailed, game-ending turnover when Maryland had a chance to tie it up with under a minute left.
The faceoff dominance that saw the Terps hold what seemed like every possession was surprisingly flipped after Luke Wierman jumped out to a hot start, winning the first four faceoffs of the game. By the time the final horn sounded, Johns Hopkins had won 14 faceoffs to Maryland’s 13.
Maryland couldn’t out-shoot its opposition either; The Blue Jays took 36 shots and Maryland took three fewer. Johns Hopkins also put more shots on goal and grabbed more ground balls. In a game as tightly contested as Saturday’s, the little things make all the difference.
“They just won part of the Big Ten championship, so we knew they’re a really good team ... we were really focused, but you know, we just have to prepare better and be more poised,” Maryland graduate long-stick midfielder John Geppert said.
It’s easy to talk about what the Terps lost after last season, and while it may be late to still concern oneself with the past, those voids show on the field in the present. The steady presences of record-breaker-extraordinaire Logan Wisnauskas and do-it-all veterans Bubba Fairman, Anthony DeMaio, Roman Puglise, Jonathan Donville, Keegan Khan and Matt Rahill meant that there was never a moment too big for Maryland. No matter the occasion, it felt more like a coronation than a competitive game of lacrosse.
Additionally, injuries to both Eric Malever and Logan McNaney have them sidelined until 2024. Considering all the previous year’s difference-makers that aren’t present, the fact that this team is as good as it is serves as a testament to the juggernaut that Tillman has built. Without any major transfer additions, he has been able to plug his own guys into a system — with a new offensive coordinator, no less — to form a consensus top-10 team.
Maryland is only in any way disappointing because of its own success. These Terps are still good enough to make some serious noise and, if mistakes are cleaned up, compete for another national title. Having only four regular-season losses is a superb season by usual standards. But at Maryland, where that hasn’t been the case since 2012, it’s a bit jarring.
On the bright side, Erksa looks destined to wear the No. 1 jersey in the not-so-distant future, the tandem of Brett Makar and Ajax Zappitello are still two of the best close defenseman the sport has to offer and Wierman remains one of the best around at his position, not to mention the many other uber-talented players on the roster. The pieces are there, they just have to come together correctly in order to solve the puzzle.
And who better to slide everything into place than Tillman? If there’s one person that can be relied upon to get their team right, it’s the coach that has produced more All-Americans, won more tournament games and reached more Final Fours than any other since he took his current job 12 years ago.
There’s work to be done before Maryland achieves its full potential this season. Johns Hopkins is a talented team, but the reason the Terps left SECU Stadium without a win and the top seed in the Big Ten Tournament was their own play.
Maryland’s ceiling is as high as any team’s. But with the clock ticking on the 2023 season and the postseason arriving, the Terps need to reach that threshold before it’s too late.
“We’ve just got to stay positive and keep teaching,” Tillman said. “We’ve come a long way. And we’ve just got to keep staying true to who we are, trying to get better, sticking together.”