It’s that time of year again!
No. 5 Maryland men’s lacrosse enters the 2021 season with high expectations and exciting new faces, but a symptom of the current conditions means the Terps will be performing at home without fans and playing against exclusively Big Ten opponents. Still, let’s try to have some fun.
“Finally knowing you’re going up against a different jersey, a different opponent is definitely exciting,” said junior Brett Makar. “Especially against Michigan. They got a great top six offensively. It‘s gonna be a great challenge for us.”
The season opener, which is the Terps’ first Big Ten game since spring 2019, is scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday at Capital One Field. The action will air on BTN Plus.
Michigan Wolverines (0-0)
2020 Record: 4-3, 0-0 B1G
Head coach Kevin Conroy has been with the Wolverines the past three seasons. Prior to that, he served as Maryland’s defensive coordinator and associate head coach. With the Terps, Conroy managed to assemble some of the best defensive lineups in program history. Most notably, their 2017 championship team and the 2016 roster that featured five USILA All-Americans on the defense.
With Michigan, Conroy has struggled to recapture the success he initially found with the team his first year on the job. The Wolverines 5-2 home record and 8-6 overall record granted them a program best No. 17 ranking by USILA in 2018, but since then, Michigan has gone 8-12 under Conroy. However, a plethora of big-time recruits does show a lot of promise for Michigan’s future.
Players to know
Josh Zawada, sophomore attack, 6’1, 175, No. 49. Zawada is coming off an impressive freshman season that saw him tally a team-high 32 points and 16 assists. He led the country in points per game (4.57) and points as a freshman on his way to earn a College Crosse Freshman All-American nod. Zawada’s 16 assists also ranked No. 21 nationally and third in the Big Ten (2.29 per game).
Bryce Clay, junior attack, 6’0, 190 lbs, No. 3. Clay led the offense alongside Zawada, and the two made for an exciting duo. Clay led the team in shots with 55, totaled 22 goals and tied the Michigan record for goals in a game with six last season. Clay also earned a Big Ten Players to Watch designation by B1G Lax alongside Zawada and Avery Myers.
Alex Buckanavage, senior midfield, 5’9, 185 lbs, No. 42. On a relatively young team, Buckanavage provides much-needed upperclassman leadership along with consistent production. His efforts in his first three seasons have placed him fifth and third on the all-time goal and assist lists, respectively. Given his usual output, it’s likely he’ll have his sights on eclipsing both lists. Buckanavage was behind only Zawada in points and assists last season.
The front six. Similar to Maryland, Michigan features a roster that allows for a style of play that is almost entirely predicated on offense. Zawada, Buckanavage, Clay, along with Kevin Mack and Jake Bonomi averaged 13 goals per contest last year.
This season, the Wolverines add Myers, who spent all of last season injured, to a group that regularly had double-digit scoring outputs. Myers has compiled 53 points in his career and is returning to play after scoring 24 goals his junior year. With the top six healthy, the Wolverines shouldn’t have too much trouble finding the back of the net.
The defense. With everything that makes Michigan promising and a true rising force in the Big Ten, defense is what truly holds it back. Much of the lack of success can be attributed to youth and inexperience.
Michigan’s defense, composed primarily of sophomores and freshmen, conceded 12 goals a game last season and was overly dependent on the offense to win games. The members of last year’s defense return this season with improved chemistry, but they have the lofty task of opening up their campaign against one of the best offenses in the nation.
Three things to watch
1. Can Maryland’s defense start strong? Maryland’s defense struggled early last year but began on an upward trend before the shutdown. Fortunately for the Terps, Michigan’s high-powered offense provides Maryland’s defense a perfect opportunity to gauge its ability to perform against a unified attack this season.
The quicker head coach John Tillman and defensive coordinator Jesse Bernhardt can construct a dependable defense with consistent pieces, the more formidable and balanced Maryland can be as the season goes on. It has to start early with Michigan.
2. How will the freshmen contribute? For many freshmen, this will be their first time playing organized, competitive lacrosse in almost a year. Though it isn’t likely they’ll be seeing significant time on the field, an appearance from attackman Eric Malever or even defenseman Ajax Zappitello on Saturday doesn’t seem too far-fetched.
“You got an early impression that [the freshmen] were a skilled group and were hungry to play” Makar said. “Just like us, every single day brings a new challenge.”
This year’s freshman will have the unique challenge of making up for their missed time last year with accelerated development in their first season of Big Ten lacrosse — an intimidating but achievable challenge for the young bunch.
“We have to be understanding that these guys are gonna continue to get better,” Tillman said. “[We] just gotta have faith in the fact that the longer they’re here, the more growth we can expect.”
3. How will the Bobby Benson offense look? This will be Bobby Benson’s first game as an assistant and the optimism on what he adds to the program is understandably high. His experience and considerable success in the conference along with his relationship with Conroy as a former Blue Jay bring an interesting narrative to this year’s opener.
“[Benson has] definitely been great,” Anthony DeMaio said. “He’s added some stuff to our offense that makes us a little more dynamic. Some of his sets and plays have helped us and will continue to help us.”