Looking on at Talen Energy Stadium in Philadelphia, Maryland men’s lacrosse head coach John Tillman got emotional as he watched 17 of his former players capture the Premier Lacrosse League championship.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get choked up a little bit,” Tillman said. “Being there and just standing back and seeing all those kids, and seeing what they’ve done on the field ... just to see them together and playing hard and having to come back and win a tough game, I thought was awesome.”
The Whipsnakes, led by league MVP Matt Rambo, took home the PLL’s inaugural title on Saturday, defeating the Redwoods 12-11 after the former Terp star scored the game-winner in overtime.
The Terp comes up clutch!!!— Lila Bromberg (@lilabbromberg) September 21, 2019
Matt Rambo (@rattmambo) wins it for the Whipsnakes in overtime. He and Michael Ehrhardt (@AirHeart12) told me earlier this week they were going to win the first @PremierLacrosse championship, and they've done it. pic.twitter.com/ZaKW0PROui
Rambo, a former Tewaaraton winner and alum of Maryland lacrosse’s illustrious No. 1, was just as dominant for Whipsnakes head coach Jim Stagnitta as he was under Tillman Saturday afternoon, notching six points off three goals and three assists to take home MVP honors for the game, along with the league’s championship trophy.
Another one of his goals came in the final seconds of regulation to tie the game and send it to overtime, where he once again came up clutch.
But as happy as Tillman is for Rambo and the other former Terps’ success, he can’t help but miss coaching some of them.
“[Stagnitta] did an amazing job with that group,” Tillman said. “He just mentioned how many times he was like, ‘I love coaching your guys.’ And I said, ‘Listen, so did I.’ He and that staff, Mike Murphy, all those guys deserve a lot of credit for meshing those guys so well.”
The Whipsnakes consist of almost entirely Terps, an honorable nod to success and prestige Tillman has cultivated in College Park during his eight seasons as head coach. Many other teams in the brand new league have groups of former players from certain NCAA schools, but none come close to the numbers of Maryland alums, with 20 on the full Whipsnakes roster and four additional Terps are on other teams.
And for the Maryland-equivalent PLL squad to be as successful in its first season as they’ve been, it’s an even greater testament to the impact Tillman has had on the program.
“It just shows that coach Tillman develops us for — you know he always talks about after college and he really wants to develop us for the future,” Rambo told Testudo Times on a podcast before the championship game. “It just shows how this program has so much greatness in it. And we’re just trying to build the biggest legacy as a player and for Maryland, so we really take that in hand and we always just go back to our roots.”
For the guys under Tillman that still have their collegiate eligibility, though, it offers not only a window to the pros, but also an opportunity to play with fellow Maryland alumni again.
“We’re always trying to get our guys good job opportunities and make sure our guys are getting their education first and foremost,” Tillman said. “But that’s kind of the icing on the cake, like, ‘Wow wouldn’t it be awesome to play with my teammates again.’ That’s what we’re seeing a lot of, is the guys that I’ve talked to, the Bryce Young’s and Kyle Bernlohr’s are like, ‘It’s so awesome, every weekend I get to see my best friends, it takes me back in time.’”
Not many current Terps can attest to having played alongside the the illustrious Maryland alumni on the Whipsnakes, but senior captain Jared Bernhardt is one of the few that can.
Donning the No. 1 now for the second consecutive season, Bernhardt still recalls looking up likes of Rambo, Connor Kelly, and Mike Chanenchuk during his time as a Terp, as well as during the careers of his brothers Jesse and Jake (Jake is on the Whipsnakes, while Jesse remains in the MLL).
“I looked up to those guys for I don’t know how many years, especially from when my brother was playing here,” Bernhardt said. “You see that number and all those guys and how well they’re doing, you’re just really proud. It’s a great honor to be able to wear that number.”
While the futures of many current Terps are still yet to be determined, the pipeline between Maryland and the Whipsnakes appears to be stronger than ever. But regardless of the opportunities to come, Tillman has his team focused on the season ahead of them.
“I don’t really focus too far ahead, I focus on the guys this year and what we can do,” junior captain Roman Puglise said on the possibility of joining the Whipsnakes post-graduation. “If the opportunity presents itself down the road, I’m sure I’ll think about it, but right now my focus is on the team.”
But regardless of if, or when, Tillman’s current guys go pro, the PLL is undeniably groundbreaking for Maryland and all of college lacrosse. For the great players who never end up having a meaningful lacrosse career post-graduation, it would appear the PLL is trending in the direction of shattering that trend.
“It gives everyone the opportunity to do lacrosse for their full time job,” Rambo said. “This thing’s gonna blow up, so it gives opportunities for these great college kids, high school kids, that are going through the grapevine now, and could really put everything and all they’ve got [into being a] professional.”