Whether it was simply walking around campus, being honored in front of a raucous crowd at a football game or receiving congratulations from President Donald Trump at the White House, the Maryland men’s lacrosse team has had to balance the satisfaction of breaking a 42-year national championship drought and wiping the slate clean to start all over again this season.
“It’s been hard for them. This program means so much to so many people,” head coach John Tillman said Tuesday at spring sports media day. “We weren’t going to take those opportunities away from them, [and] we wanted to share what happened last year with Terp nation because we felt like there were a lot of people that were a part of that.”
There have been good days and bad days in between the buzzer sounding on a 9-6 National Championship victory this past May in Gillette Stadium and the weeks leading up to the season-opener this Saturday against Navy. At times, the coaching staff has had to escape the moment to remind its current team that players like Matt Rambo, Colin Heacock, and Tim Muller, among others, have graduated since hoisting the trophy in Foxborough, Massachusetts.
“When you’re a spring sport, regardless of what happens in the spring, a lot of times everyone’s gone at the end of the year,” Tillman explained. “So then the fall comes and the first chance you get to see anybody it’s a new year, but everybody saw what happened at the end. It’s really hard at times to move forward fully.”
When attending those events in the offseason to celebrate its achievement, the team has been met with a sobering reminder from Tillman that this year’s team hasn’t played in a meaningful game yet. The maturity of returning veterans, such as senior captain and First Team All-American Connor Kelly, has been pivotal in spreading this message, too.
“As a competitor, I try to focus on the day-to-day,” Kelly said. “You can’t really focus much on getting honored because that was last year’s 2017 team. We’re trying to write the script for 2018.”
Maryland didn’t just end last year on top, as the USILA/Nike Preseason Coaches Poll tagged the Terps as the top team in the country to start this season. That recognition came as a surprise to Tillman, simply because of the number of valuable pieces he lost. It also doesn’t make the start-over process any easier for a new roster that suddenly faces the same expectations as its more-proven predecessor.
“I kind of just shake my head a little bit [at the rankings] because I’m not sure it’s fair for anybody to expect the guys that’ll play will just step up and fill [last year’s] roles,” Tillman said. “Our goal is just to be the best we can be, and we realize it is a process. So when we play Saturday, we certainly aren’t going to be the same team from last spring.”
The program’s mantra is widely known as “Be the Best.” But now that the Terps are coming off a season in which they were the best and broke a 42-year title drought, it can be difficult to automatically press the reset button. What has made that transition a little smoother throughout offseason practices and scrimmages has been the historic phrase that’s been adopted by the eighth-year head coach.
“We can always go back to [remembering that] it’s about being your best everyday, not what we did eight months ago, not what we did last week,” Tillman said. “You need to be your best today.”
Even though Tillman concedes it’s often been hard to escape last year, for the returning players, winning a National Championship gives them an extra appreciation and understanding of what is required to not only reach the final game—which the Terps did in 2015 and 2016—but to come out on top.
“Honestly, I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” Kelly said. “Whether it was winning or losing in the finals, it’s been an awesome experience. It just goes to show how much work you have to put in to get to that point.”
The Terps have also had their fair share of accolades and recognition in the past, even if it wasn’t for winning a championship. Under Tillman, Maryland has participated in six Final Fours and won two of its first three Big Ten Tournament titles. So even though it might’ve taken a little extra time this year to refocus and regroup, the Terps have done it before and they’ll do it again to commence a new journey to be the best.
“I think using that as our vision and our rallying cry, it always allows you to reset the button or at least talk about it in a clear and concise way,” Tillman said. “We just have to make sure we temper our expectations now. By May, let’s see how far we can go. Let’s see how much better we can get.”