During John Tillman’s tenure as head coach of Maryland men’s lacrosse, defense has been the staple of the program. The team has excelled at shutting down teams defensively, while doing enough to get by on offense.
This formula has been an age-old tactic for the Terps, illustrated by the program’s four national championship appearances in six years. That formula, great as it is, might need some work in the 2017 season.
“[Defensively] I think we’re a work in progress,” Tillman told media at Maryland’s spring media day on Monday. “If we can keep just trying to get a little bit better, and be good enough in the early season to win games and keep moving, that’s going to be really important.”
This is pretty unusual for Tillman to say, considering the Terps have always been a defensive nightmare for opposing teams. The unit held opponents to just 8.35 goals per game last season, yet Tillman’s short-term goal is for them is to just be “good enough.”
For years, the Terps prided themselves on hard-nosed defense, so why is it that just days before the season opener against Navy, Maryland’s defense is still a “work in progress”?
Let’s look at the guys who left
Last year, Maryland’s defense was anchored by Matt Dunn and Greg Danseglio, both of whom are now graduated.
Dunn, nicknamed Le Beast, reads defenses like none other. The seventh overall pick in the 2016 MLL Draft, Dunn graduated a three-year academic all-conference selection, played in three Finals Fours and was a two-time team captain and All-American. He was the best player on arguably the best defense in the country, and the Terps can’t just replace a player like him overnight.
Danseglio, selected 19th overall in the same 2016 draft, was Maryland’s difference maker. The former UVA transfer scooped a team-high 66 ground balls to just four turnovers, a ridiculous ratio that proved he was one of the elite defenders in collegiate lacrosse.
“The guys are trying … but you can’t just have those guys leave and the new guys step in at the same level,” Tillman said.
If Tillman didn’t have a pipeline of guys ready to step up, the loss of these two pro-level players would be devastating.
So who are fans going to see?
Luckily, Maryland recruits some of the best lacrosse prospects from around the country. Of the 11 listed defensemen, three are nationally-ranked freshmen that could step in and see time immediately, including Henry Chastain (35th-best defenseman), Jack Welding (27th-best defenseman) and Blake Carrara (69th overall player).
Senior Mac Pons, who started all 20 games for the Terps last season, is questionable for the start of the year and could be out of the lineup for the foreseeable future. Look for preseason All-American Tim Muller to step into that leadership role that Dunn left behind.
Even when Maryland has “problems,” the team seems to be doing fine.
A changing of the guard in goal
The biggest change in the defense comes between the posts. Kyle Bernlohr, the Nation’s Most Outstanding Goalie in 2015, left Maryland with an unforgettable legacy as the highest goalkeeper ever drafted out of the program.
Now, it’s junior Dan Morris’ turn.
Since being named the starter, Tillman has seen “a lot more aggressiveness, a lot more leadership from him knowing he’s the starter.”
Morris has patiently backed up Bernlohr the last two seasons, notching 25 saves in 15 relief appearances. In the 2015 NCAA quarterfinals, he made three saves in late-game action against North Carolina. He isn’t a household name at the moment, but soon he will be.
“Everybody really wants to play hard for him because he’s that good of a guy,” Tillman said.
Maryland’s defense should be fine. It just might take awhile before everything comes together.