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Maryland men’s lacrosse’s up-and-down 2023 campaign was a predictable step down from perfection

The Terps had their lowest win total since 2013 (excluding the shortened 2020 season) and lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics

Maryland men’s lacrosse head coach John Tillman constantly muttered three words throughout the 2023 season: Jekyll and Hyde.

“For us, hopefully, you know, the Jekyll and Hyde of 2023 Maryland lacrosse [doesn’t] still exist,” Tillman said following Maryland’s defeat in the Big Ten Championship Game.

Unfortunately for Tillman and the Terps, it did. Maryland’s final win of the season came two days prior.

With five starters moving on from the 2022 championship squad and new pieces on the coaching staff, this season was coined to be a rebuilding one by many.

But the Terps entered the 2023 NCAA Tournament as the No. 4 seed, earning a home game against Army. The Black Knights were quickly ascending through the national rankings, though, and Tillman knew they could be trouble.

“We saw the draw on Sunday and started watching film, and we knew we had a really good team, an awesome team, one of the better teams in the tournament,” he said. “We knew we’d have our hands full and that’s exactly what we got.”

Maryland found itself down 7-2 after the first quarter, but a second-quarter eruption tied the game at eight headed into halftime. The final two quarters were much more balanced, however, with neither team gaining more than a two-goal advantage. The Terps led by one at the end of the third quarter, but couldn’t hang on in the final 15 minutes of play, as Army upset the reigning national champions, 16-15.

During its 2022 campaign, no team could hold a candle to Maryland. The Terps put together the first undefeated season in Division I men’s lacrosse since 2006.

But a younger and less experienced Terps squad faced plenty of adversity this year.

Maryland’s journey as the defending national champions was an uphill battle from the get-go. Junior attackman Eric Malever, who tallied 26 goals and 22 assists in 2022, was sidelined for the entire season with multiple leg injuries. Star goalie Logan McNaney also missed the majority of the season after tearing his ACL against Loyola (Md.) on Feb. 11.

With those injuries, the youth had to come up big, and they did.

Freshman attackman Braden Erksa burst onto the scene as Maryland’s primary offensive weapon. He led the team in points (48) with 26 goals and 22 assists. Elsewhere, sophomore attackman Eric Spanos developed into a top scoring option off the bench, recording four goals in the final two games of the season.

With McNaney out for the season, Tillman initially looked toward graduate Teddy Dolan to fill in at goalie, but found freshman Brain Ruppel to be the better fit. In 13 starts, Ruppel totaled 11.25 goals allowed per game and a 48.4% save percentage, which ranked 48th in the country.

While Ruppel’s season was promising, with inexperience comes inconsistency. The freshman allowed 16 goals against Army and only tallied five saves, mirroring much of the Terps’ tumultuous season.

Maryland found itself in unfamiliar territory early as it split its first two games. The loss to Loyola (Md.) was its first regular season defeat since 2020. The Terps then won five of their next six games, though, including a 14-13 overtime win over then-No.1 Virginia.

However, Mr. Hyde reared his ugly head back into Maryland’s season, as the Terps suffered their third loss of the year to an unranked Michigan squad, 16-11.

While Maryland won the next two games, its most heartbreaking loss of the regular season was yet to come.

The Terps possessed the coveted wooden crab trophy, awarded to the winner of “The Rivalry” each season, but surrendered it back to Johns Hopkins in the 2023 regular season finale.

With less than a minute remaining, senior Luke Wierman secured one of the most crucial faceoffs of the year, giving Maryland a chance to tie the game at 12. As the Terps maneuvered around the attacking zone, sophomore attackman Zach Whittier flung the ball over Erksa’s head and sealed Maryland’s fate, as they lost both “The Rivalry’’ and the Big Ten regular-season title.

After sliding from No. 1 to No. 3 in the Big Ten standings, Maryland cruised past the first two rounds of the conference tournament. The Terps upended Rutgers, 14-11, in the first round, and then got its revenge against Johns Hopkins, 14-9, to advance to the championship game.

Riding high, Maryland matched up against Michigan in a battle for its third consecutive Big Ten championship, but crumbled yet again.

The Wolverines looked like the better team from the opening whistle. They jumped to an early 5-3 lead and then held Maryland to two goals in the final three quarters. The win marked Michigan’s first Big Ten Championship in program history.

“I think we found a recipe after that Maryland game on how we were going to be successful and how we were going to win games”, Michigan head coach Kevin Conry said after the game.

Maryland junior defenseman Ajax Zappitello — who recorded four points, 21 caused turnovers and 29 ground balls in 12 games on the season — was sidelined for the entire postseason with a hand injury. That catapulted freshman defenseman Will Schaller into a starting role.

When asked what he missed most about Zappitello’s absence, graduate defenseman Brett Makar said, “His experience…When you have young guys who haven’t experienced having to play two games in three days. To have to bounce back like that [and] get into the prep, it’s difficult.”

The Terps finished the year with their worst record since 2009 (10-7) and their worst under Tillman.

Although Maryland’s season did not end with a dogpile and a new piece of hardware, there is still much to look forward to.

Erksa looks to be the face of Maryland lacrosse for years to come and an eventual recipient of the No. 1 jersey. Whittier and Spanos also combined for 42 points this season and provided energy when needed.

Since McNaney still has a year of eligibility remaining, Ruppel will likely compete to be the full-time starter as an upperclassman.

Sophomore defensemen Colin Burlace and Schaller should thrive next year with a full season under their belts. Burlace started in all 16 games this season — forcing 11 turnovers to go along with 23 ground balls — and Schaller tallied eight ground balls and five caused turnovers in 11 games.

Sophomore midfielder Dante Trader Jr. completed his first season as a Maryland lacrosse player. A starting safety on Maryland’s football team, Trader Jr. was an athletic outlier on the lacrosse field and contributed on both offense and defense, totaling five goals, two assists and 14 caused turnovers.

Junior attackman Daniel Kelly and junior midfielder Jack Koras should also be back next season. Kelly led the team in goals (30) and tacked on eight assists. Koras finished fifth on the team in points (29) with 21 goals and eight assists.

“I know the program’s in great hands going forward,” Makar said. “Not only because of guys like Coach Tillman, but because of the guys in that locker room.”

With a mix of experience, youth and health, the Terps should be in for an improved 2024 season as a national contender once again.