The success of Maryland men's lacrosse is as bittersweet as any. After narrowly edging Brown in the semifinals, the Terps will face North Carolina on Monday for their fourth chance at a national title in six years.
That in itself is an incredible feat, showing how consistent excellence is simply what's expected of head coach John Tillman's players. At the same time, three championship losses in the previous three trips says something about this program's ability to handle the spotlight.
"Any time you win, the kids all deserve all the credit," Tillman said. "And if you don't win, it falls on the leadership of the team, and that falls on me."
With past Maryland squads, there were weaknesses that teams exposed to ultimately cut the season short.
But the Terrapins have distinguished themselves as this year's team to beat, and they've officially run out of excuse cards to play. They possess every ingredient of a national champion, and this is ultimately their game to lose.
They're already familiar with North Carolina.
"You look at the last two weeks, I don't think anybody's playing any better," Tillman said in a Sunday press conference.
In the semifinals, the Tar Heels dropped 18 on a Loyola team that punished opposing offenses all season long. They've turned a corner since the Terps played them last, and there's a reason they're competing for the national championship.
"They're moving the ball quicker, I think they're improving at each position," goalkeeper Kyle Bernlohr said.
That being said, there are no surprises that are going to catch Maryland off-guard. This is the same personnel that the Terps faced and beat 11-8 earlier in the season. You can't ask for a better advantage than playing the most important game of the year against a team you're already familiar with.
Pressure has yet to faze Maryland this season.
The overtime victory against the Ivy League champions wasn't just catching lightning in a bottle. Maryland's been in tight-game situations before, including an overtime slugfest at Penn State and late-game win in snow-covered Michigan. The Terps have experience in do-or-die situations when the game is on the line, and should prove even more valuable if they find themselves in battling late against UNC.
A lack of offensive weapons has always been the missing link. This year, it's a strength.
Maryland's offense a season ago got the job done, but that's all it did. It scored just enough to beat opponents, but was relatively inconsistent when the season mattered most.
The simultaneous blossoming of players like Connor Kelly and Colin Heacock has taken pressure off the defense and extended the margin for error. Offensively, a lot of weight had been placed on then-sophomore Matt Rambo. He's leading the team in points just as he did last year, but now he's got an onslaught of supporting scorers that have made his job a lot easier.
"Our team is capable of playing so many different styles because we're so deep this year," Rambo said.
If the lack of scorers truly was the Terps' missing puzzle piece, there's no reason they shouldn't emerge victorious on Monday.
Maryland is a historical power in lacrosse, but hasn't won the national title in 41 years. With each loss, there's been a reason or weakness that at least explained where things went wrong. The Terps don't have that luxury this year. They have everything they need to become national champions, and anything less will be seen as a failure.
"We were here last year, and we didn't get it done," defenseman Matt Dunn said after beating Brown. "Being in the Final Four and making the championship game again, it's a dream come true."