Penn State’s win over Maryland men’s lacrosse last weekend wasn’t just the Nittany Lions’ first victory over the Terps in their last 36 tries, but was also an assertion that they’re the top dog in the Big Ten this season. For Maryland, it was a revelation of some of the team’s shortcomings that haven’t been on display since the loss to Notre Dame.
Although it’s a letdown for a team looking to take the next step, there’s still plenty of lacrosse to be played and adjustments to be made this season before tournament play begins. The Terps were in a similar position last season when they lost to then-No. 1 Albany at home, but stayed the course and managed to finish as the top seed in the NCAA Tournament.
But it’s a different season and a different team, and a convincing loss at home can easily disrupt confidence. That’s where head coach John Tillman turns to his senior leaders to right the ship and make sure this young team can maintain a high level of play.
“Something we talk about a lot here is that the younger guys can make a little bit more mistakes and the older guys have to step up and be erasers for that,” redshirt senior midfielder Christian Zawadzki said.
Still, Zawadzki and the rest of the upperclassmen are aware of their responsibility to help groom some of the younger guys into future contributors and leaders themselves, the same responsibility the seniors from four seasons ago had when this year’s group were freshmen.
“It’s tough coming into a top program after being the guy on your high school team,” he said. ”Guys like Charlie Raffa, Joe Locasio, Bryan Cole, there’s so many guys you can name that just helped out the younger guys, and that’s what we’re trying to do to these freshmen so that it just passes along.”
Like Zawadzki, long-stick midfielder Nick Brozowski is also a fifth-year senior who’s taken on a leadership role in 2019, albeit on the other side of the field. Brozowski’s experience helps make him one of the team’s reliable vets that do as much work off the field as on it.
“I think it’s kinda using that five years of experience to be able to kinda see like, ‘OK, this has worked this hasn’t worked,’” Brozowski said. “Just kinda being able to relate to the younger guys with maybe positions I’ve been in, especially some kids that maybe are struggling, maybe as a freshman this year ... I’ve sorta been there, done that, so I can maybe relate to those guys a little bit better and make their transition from high school to college a little bit better.”
Facing Penn State’s offense was likely the toughest test Brozowski and the rest of the defensive unit will face all season. But in spite of their opponent ultimately getting the best of them, the Terps are trying to learn from the experience of going toe-to-toe with the best offense in the country.
“At the end of the day, as hard as that loss was and for all the things we did poorly, there’s a lot of really good things to build off that game,” Brozowski said. “I think a lot of teams would’ve folded after being down 8-1 in the first quarter, and I’m not saying by any means that’s what we wanted to do, but at the same time I think it shows a lot of resilience in our group and as a team as a whole to not let them score for 30 minutes and come back to make it 8-7.”
As much as Maryland’s on-field leaders can do for this team, whether or not this team can stick by one another through an entire season will ultimately fall on Tillman’s shoulders. This loss can either act as a springboard or have the players second-guessing themselves, and, by his own account, he thinks the team is trending toward the former.
“I think the guys are motivated, managing the season, the ups and the downs, is something as a coach you realize is important to do. You can’t get too high or low, every week is an opportunity to learn,” Tillman said. “You try not to define what our potential is just because of two hours, so I think there was a lot that we could learn.
“I think that our guys did a lot of really good things, I thought Penn State did a lot of really good things. It was a great measuring stick for us in terms of things we maybe need to focus on more and keep improving.”