An emotional Connor Kelly answered several questions less than 30 minutes after his college career ended abruptly Saturday afternoon, while Maryland lacrosse head coach John Tillman patted his senior’s back for comfort.
Junior defenseman Curtis Corley, sitting on the far right side of the table, had changed into a black Maryland polo, but Kelly remained in his game jersey, which was drenched in sweat—and now also tears—as he stared into the rows of media members at Gillette Stadium.
He didn’t have to talk, and it would’ve been understandable if he elected not to. When the Terps lost in the national championship two years ago against North Carolina, it was Kelly—then a sophomore—who volunteered to speak to the media just so the seniors didn’t have to.
But while his fellow seniors remained in the locker room following Maryland’s 13-8 Final Four loss to Duke on Saturday, Kelly chose to sit in the spotlight one more time as he tried to explain what went wrong while reflecting on his past four years, a task he didn’t want his superiors to endure two years ago in Philadelphia. Despite the emotions accompanied by ending the season and his Terrapin career one game shy of another national championship appearance, Kelly—through his responses and by choosing to participate in the postgame presser—displayed once again his character and what Maryland lacrosse is all about.
“This is the best program to be a part of for any high school players [or] middle school players. Maryland sets the standard for what it is to play college lacrosse,” Kelly said. “Hard-working, resilient, and just so unselfish. I couldn’t think of playing for any other program under Coach Tills.”
Kelly said he knew his team wasn’t finished and would make a run when asked about turning an early 6-0 deficit into a one-goal game before the Blue Devils ultimately pulled away. He choked back tears as he addressed Maryland’s 13 turnovers, unselfishly claiming responsibility as a team captain and owner of the prestigious No. 1 jersey.
Kelly’s decision to sit up on the podium with cameras and voice recorders in front of him isn’t an isolated incident, either. There’s been a pattern of maturity, especially evident in big losses. When Maryland dropped a tough game against Ohio State at home last month, Kelly signed autographs for young fans before leaving to speak to the media, but returned afterward to finish signing memorabilia.
The Easton, Connecticut, native has helped build the legacy this graduating class is leaving behind. Kelly’s 128 career goals are fifth-most in Maryland history, his 191 points are ninth-most and his 82-point senior season is ranked third.
Maryland’s seniors set the most wins in program history with a 62-12 record, won two Big Ten tournaments, advanced to the Final Four in every season and brought one trophy back to College Park in three trips to the national title game. That championship win last year was the program’s first in 42 years.
“This program is in great hands, obviously. The past couple of years speak for themselves,” Kelly said. “I’ve been a part of a great group. I can’t thank enough the guys for my individual success.”
The careers of attacker Tim Rotanz and goalkeeper Dan Morris spanned an extra year. They, too, never finished any of their five seasons without Maryland playing on Memorial Day weekend in the Final Four. Rotanz tallied three points in his final game, while Morris saved 14 of 27 shots.
Tillman has now taken Maryland to the Final Four seven times in his first eight seasons at the helm. No other team in the country can say them same. Playing on Memorial Day weekend has become customary of Terrapins lacrosse for both the men’s and the women’s teams.
At the beginning of the season, though, this Maryland team wasn’t widely expected to reach a fourth consecutive title game, a feat that hadn’t been completed since Syracuse from 1999-2002. Underclassman production helped made that goal feel possible, as the seniors tried to finish their careers with back-to-back championships.
“We lost some amazing players [last year] ... so there were a lot of holes to fill,” Tillman said. “We just knew we would have to work hard and improve to go where we want to go. And certainly getting here is a tremendous accomplishment for those guys.”
The Terps began the season 11-1 as offensive production from Jared Bernhardt, Bubba Fairman and Logan Wisnauskas complemented Kelly’s strong performances. They turned into a team that could’ve been the last one standing, but were exposed too often down the stretch. Maryland lost three times in its last seven games.
There’s still plenty of success to reminisce this season and just as many reasons to look forward to the future. It wasn’t the ideal ending for the Terps, but Maryland’s seniors are departing a program—thanks to their own contributions—that shows no signs of letting up.
“The two hours [Saturday] where we maybe didn’t play as well as we’d like, it’s not going to define what this group did. They just did such a tremendous job,” Tillman said. “They took so much pride in representing our school and our state, so I love them for that. They’re always going to be Terps, and they’ve left the program in great hands.”