COLLEGE PARK – After three years of early exits from the NCAA tournament, the Maryland men’s lacrosse team finally had its shot at a national title last May.
The team was stacked with eight All-Americans, the most since 2004. But it wasn’t enough. The University of Virginia pulled off an upset to win its fifth NCAA title with a hard-fought 9-7 victory over Maryland.
Eight months later, with the 2012 season on the horizon, second-year head coach John Tillman said the players need to pick themselves up and move on from 2011’s disappointing finish.
“People keep telling you, ‘Hey great job’ and it’s…very bittersweet,” he said. “You politely have to thank them for their compliment. But you also feel empty because… you’re a competitive person and you have a goal (that) you didn’t meet.”
Last season’s performance fell short of expectations, Tillman said.
“You also have to recognize, we got to a place where a lot of other people didn’t get. But here, the goal is to win the championship. I gotta make sure that the kids realize that,” he said.
This year, Tillman can’t rely on the production of Grant Catalino, who finished 10th on Maryland’s career scoring list, or Ryan Young, who finished 17th. Overall, the Terps lost 45 percent of their scoring from last year.
No one is feeling sorry for the Terps, who have reloaded for another title run. Maryland enters the season ranked seventh in the United States Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association Coach’s Poll.
The offense is headlined by senior attack Joe Cummings, one of five team captains. Cummings scored 27 goals last year, second best on the team to Catalino.
Cummings said there’s no point in trying to replace the production of Catalino and Young, two all-time greats.
“Their skills and their leadership were great, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t be different and that we can’t be just as good, in just a different way,” he said.
Junior midfielder Curtis Holmes, a faceoff specialist, said he’s used the championship game loss as motivation throughout the off-season.
It pushed him to, “Get out there, get in the gym, get out on the field, shoot, not just face off,” he said. “All in all, we want to get back there and win a national championship.”
His performance will go a long way toward determining where Maryland finishes the season.
Holmes won a higher percentage of faceoffs last year — 63 percent — than any player in Maryland history, finishing seventh in Division I.
He is aiming to win 70 percent of his faceoffs this year. Last year, the top player in the country won 67 percent of his faceoffs.
The Terps are also looking for new leaders on defense.
Sophomore goalie Niko Amato had the fourth-best goals against average in the country last year, giving up just 6.78 scores through 18 games.
Last year, he had the benefit of playing behind three of the best defenders in America: Brett Schmidt, Max Schmidt and Ryder Bohlander.
The senior trio formed a stonewall defense that gave up just seven goals a game, making them the fourth-best unit in the country in 2011.
Amato said the less experienced defense in place this year will have to rely on him as the unit learns the intricacies of the game.
Amato said it will be important for him to help younger players understand, “What the offenses are trying to do…and (coach them) through that.”
With the top-rated freshman class in the country coming in and several talented but untested players ready to play a larger role, team leaders said they’re prepared for another championship run.
While it’s a bit too early to know what to expect, senior midfielder and captain Jake Bernhardt said the team is gelling.
“We’re starting to create a chemistry. Some guys are stepping up, making some plays out there and it’s helping out,” he said.
Tillman’s Terps are not dwelling on last season’s loss.
“(The) next day it’s like, ‘Alright, time to move on.’ Is it that easy? Not emotionally, but practically, you gotta start moving forward or you?re never going to get over it,” Tillman said.
Cummings said he is eager to get back out on the field.
“It’s something I think about every day and it definitely drives me. To have such an awesome season last year, to get that close but just to come up short, you know, it’s painful,” he said. “But we use that as motivation and we use it as fuel and as a team we want to get that bad taste out of our mouth right away.”
Maryland will begin its push to a national championship with the regular season opener on February 18th at home against Hartford at 1 p.m.