In two seasons, lacrosse coach has reversed Terps postseason fortunes
How did Maryland go from a postseason underachiever to a postseason overachiever?
The simple answer is John Tillman, the first coach in NCAA history to take two unseeded teams to the Final Four, doing so in his first two years in College Park. On Saturday the Terrapins will play Duke in the NCAA semifinals for the second straight year.
When Tillman guided a loaded, senior-heavy, unseeded Terps squad to the NCAA finals last year, it appeared a case of a talented team finally getting in synch with its new coach and playing to its potential.
This season, however, has been a better example of the magic of Tillman, who had to break in a trio of first-year starters at close defense and a pair of starting attackmen, in addition to juggling a revamped midfield after losing senior Jake Bernhardt (shoulder) for the season.
“I’ve never been part of a team that has lost almost half its roster,” Tillman said. “We had so many holes to fill, we knew it was like, just look for any progress, any little bit of positive reinforcement.”
Tillman knew he faced an uphill struggle in the fall, suffering confidence-shaking losses to U-Mass and Rutgers.
“We got beat up badly. It was ugly. Anybody that was there, it was pretty obvious,” Tillman said of the U-Mass debacle. “We knew we couldn’t define ourselves in October. We had to really dedicate ourselves to getting better every single day, whether it was running, lifting weights, individual skill sessions, watching film.”
In addition to a talent drop-off with the loss of 15 seniors, there was a leadership void.
“We asked seven or eight seniors to all the sudden lead after being in the background,” Tillman said. “The fall was, at times, disastrous. We had guys late. We had guys not doing the right thing. They didn’t know how to lead those guys because they’d had no training.”
Maryland has had the predictable ups and downs of an inexperienced team. A 13-11 loss at Colgate three weeks ago wasn’t the best way to close the regular season, but it might have helped the Terrapins refocus.
There was a player-only meeting in which Terrapins “kind of lifted ourselves,” according to midfielder Drew Snider.
“We got everything out in the open. We weren’t really feeling comfortable with certain things,” Snider said. “It really comes down to the person who’s on the field. What are you going to make of this possession?”
Sensing late-season burnout, Tillman got feedback from players one-on-one and revamped his practices, making them more up-tempo, unpredictable, and competitive, and less game-plan oriented with first teamers going against scout team players.
“The season is a grind. You start in August. You sometimes forget these are young guys,” Tillman said. “What we found with these guys, is that shaking things up a little more, keeping it fresh, keeping it different, even if it was the slightest of tweaks, it keeps their attention a little more.”
When it comes to postseason success under Tillman, some Maryland veterans are hesitant to pinpoint differences because it could sound like criticism of former coach Dave Cottle, a popular figure and highly-regarded lacrosse strategist.
But players point to the work ethic and thorough game-planning of Tillman’s staff and the team’s increased discipline and attention to detail.
“He continually stresses the little plays,” senior attack Joe Cummings said. “If we can get the ground balls, make the right passes, make good decisions, the goals, the good plays will happen on their own. That’s one of the great things coach does. He helps us focus on those things.”
Sophomore Mike Chanenchuk, a transfer from Princeton, was immediately impressed with the hard work put in by the staff and says it sets an example for the team.
“They put so much into this team, so much into the kids,” Chanenchuk said. “The game plans and the preparation honestly has been winning us games. When we go out and execute what they’ve laid out for us, I don’t want to say it’s easy, but it puts us in position to be successful … The level of dedication by the coaches and the players – I don’t want to say it was shocking -- but it was something I noticed right off.”
Under Tillman, Maryland has gone 5-1 in the postseason, with all the games coming against higher-seeded foes.
Maryland’s history of tournament failure before the arrival of Tillman extends through three coaching tenures. After winning its last national championship in 1975, Maryland has lost 10 times in the postseason to lower-seeded teams. Some of the defeats were particularly frustrating. Three of Cottle’s final five seasons ended when the seeded Terps lost to unseeded teams – U-Mass (2006), UMBC (2007), and Notre Dame (2010).
Cottle’s predecessor Dick Edell (1984-2001) fell to lower seeds his first two trips to the tournament, including a 13-8 defeat to No. 4 Johns Hopkins when Maryland was the top seed in 1987. In 1996, Edell lost again to No. 7 Hopkins as the No. 2 seed. Most frustrating for Edell, however, were tournament defeats to his lower-seeded alma mater, Towson (1991, 2001).
Even coach Bud Beardmore, who delivered Maryland its two national championships, had his share of postseason frustration, losing to archrival Johns Hopkins the last six times he faced the Blue Jays in the tournament, after beating them in the 1973 title game.