Maryland head coach John Tillman is on his way to his sixth Final Four appearance in seven years, while some coaches are lucky to get to one in their lifetime. It’s practically become a yearly routine for his program, but Tillman considers every trip unlike the other.
“We kind of feel like you get experience from being there, but each year is different just because your team is different,” Tillman said in a Tuesday morning teleconference with the media. “I don’t ever take that for granted. I’m very appreciative having coached for a long time and not knowing if or how many times you’d get there.”
After breezing by Albany 18-9 in the NCAA Quarterfinals, Maryland faces the fourth-seeded Denver Pioneers this Saturday in the NCAA Semifinals, with a chance to play in its fifth championship game in six years.
The Great Danes beat North Carolina in the first round to move on and play the Terps, eliminating a potential championship rematch a year after the Tar Heels bested Maryland in overtime in Lincoln Financial.
Instead, the Terps draw a rematch of the 2015 national title game in the semifinals. Denver and Maryland haven’t played each other since that Memorial Day weekend, when the No. 4-seed Pioneers shut down No. 6 Maryland’s offense for a 10-5 win and the National Championship trophy.
Maryland is a far different team than two years ago, with a different dynamic and a real chance to quell the championship drought. In 2015, Tillman’s defense allowed 7.05 goals per game, and the offense scored just enough to beat their opponents. The Terps have maintained that elite-level defense, but vastly improved on the offensive side of the ball.
Through 16 games in 2015, Maryland’s offense tallied 156 goals behind just 73 assists. The Terps have played 16 games so far this season, and shattered those numbers with 201 goals, 105 assists and counting.
The biggest reason for this improvement comes from the progress of senior attackman Matt Rambo. A starter since his freshman year, Rambo has made the transition from a pure scorer to the team’s most versatile all-around offensive threat. Take a look at his stats from 2015 and 2017, the two years Maryland faced Denver:
He’s kept his goal output consistent, but his biggest improvement comes from his playmaking skills and finding others moving off the ball.
Rambo notched 30 goals and six assists in an impressive freshman campaign, but nobody expected he’d end his career as Maryland’s most prolific offensive player ever.
“His passing, his riding, he’s picked up enormous ground balls for us this year,” Tillman said. “His work ethic and dedication to becoming a complete player has been huge.”
The faceoff will look a lot different now too.
The previous matchup was highlighted by a heavyweight fight at the faceoff draw between Denver’s freshman sensation, Trevor Baptiste, and Maryland’s veteran in Charlie Raffa. Raffa, a current faceoff for the Chesapeake Bayhawks, graduated with the fourth-most faceoff wins in program history.
While Raffa has since been replaced by the committee of Austin Henningsen, Jon Garino Jr. and Will Bonaparte, Baptiste remains the best faceoff man in the country with an astonishing .757 win percentage.
Some have even argued that he should win the Tewaaraton Award, given to the most outstanding player in the nation.
“When you’re getting 73 percent, you’re getting 3-1 in possessions on an average basis,” Tillman said. “It just allows you to be so comfortable on offense, and then your defense is pretty well rested.”
The faceoff unit for Maryland will have face Albany’s TD Ierlan and Baptiste back-to-back weeks—No. 2 and No. 1 in national faceoff percentage, respectively. Maryland’s trio took 16 of 30 from Ierlan last weekend, and they’ll look to duplicate that success on championship weekend.
Maryland plays Denver this Saturday at 2:30 p.m. ET at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts. Tillman will spend the week prepping for the most important game of the season, but knows to enjoy the moment too.
“We’re also trying to make sure we’re enjoying this week together, regardless,” Tillman said. “There’s some value to that, making sure you have some balance with your preparation.”