In his eight years at Maryland, John Tillman’s teams have been the epitome of consistency. No matter the opponent, the Terps usually play the same way, carrying a precise offense, tough defense and solid goalie play to Memorial Day Weekend.
That’s what made the start of Sunday night’s game against No. 1 Penn State so jarring. For the first 28 minutes, Maryland look rattled. Penn State came out on fire, putting the Terps down 8-1 before they had a chance to catch their breath. The Nittany Lions’ defense made life just as miserable, clogging up shooting lanes and giving Maryland no space to operate.
The Terps finally woke up and scored six straight goals across the second and third quarters, but by then, the damage was already done. For (possibly) the first time ever, Penn State beat Maryland in men’s lacrosse.
Coming into the game, it looked like a similar storyline from two years ago. Penn State was once again the No. 1 team in the country, looking to make a statement against one of the top programs in the sport. In that game, Maryland and its determined senior class jumped out to a 4-0 lead and never looked back. Three of the top four scorers from that Penn State team returned for this matchup, as well as top short-stick defensive midfielder Chris Sabia and goalie Colby Kneese.
The Nittany Lions certainly played like the more experienced team Sunday night.
“I felt like Penn State probably returned the most coming back this year, and knowing that we were still plugging in some parts, I thought this game would be very important in terms of finding out how close we were, and we were right there,” Tillman said.
In a Big Ten conference that appears to be getting better every year, that experience comes at a premium. Each game is a grind, with all six teams looking to find any separation. The Terps won three Big Ten regular season games by one goal last year, with every team taking their best shot at the program Penn State coach Jeff Tambroni says sets the standard not just in the conference but in all of college lacrosse.
Several players on this year’s Maryland team are taking on much bigger roles, and there are plenty of new faces on the defensive end. Last year, Danny Dolan was backing up Dan Morris in goal, short-sticks Alex Smith and Michael Chiaramonte were on different teams and Brett Makar was still playing high school lacrosse in New York. No matter how much you prepare for this part of the season, Big Ten men’s lacrosse is always a step up from a normal game.
“You have the No. 1 offense in the country and they got parts all over the field from [Grant] Ament all the way down to the second line,” sophomore midfielder Roman Puglise said. “Those guys can ball. They just came out fast and didn’t slow down.”
There’s only so much you can blame on new players, though. The problems that plagued Maryland in conference play last year showed up again Sunday night. After only losing the faceoff battle by one in the first quarter, Gerard Arceri dominated the Terps the rest of the way, winning 13 of the final 17. In a game where Maryland needed every possession it could get, that wasn’t enough.
The Terps also got no production from their second midfield line, which registered just two errant shots. That was a problem last year, especially when teams keyed in on Connor Kelly and he played less than 100 percent down the stretch.
But even with the inconsistent play and disastrous first quarter, there’s still a lot to like about this Maryland team. After giving up eight goals in the first quarter, Penn State didn’t score again for 28 minutes. Danny Dolan started to get into a rhythm, and became much tougher to get past from the first quarter on. The potential of Maryland’s offense was on display in the fourth quarter as well, especially on a play where Kyle Long spun free of two defenders, passed to Jared Bernhardt, who found a streaking Logan Wisnauskas for a goal.
This loss isn’t something to freak out about, especially with six more weeks to the NCAA Tournament. Teams beat up on each other throughout the season, and Tillman could teach a master class on how to get teams to the Final Four. The key is making sure Maryland plays its best lacrosse when the games really matter. With a team that has some experience but is still somewhat young, that remains a definite possibility.