Maybe the most enduring image of the Maryland men’s lacrosse team’s 14-9 win over bitter rival Johns Hopkins on Thursday in the Big Ten tournament semifinals wasn’t a Blue Jays helmet popping off after a hit, or a Maryland attackman being totally run over by a Blue Jays defenseman later while trying to set a pick, or the thud of a full-speed ground-ball battle collision near the sideline late in the fourth quarter.

Those things all happened and are indicative of what many consider the best rivalry in college lacrosse. But when this edition was over, the picture of someone who didn’t play told a multilayered story.

There was Maryland junior defenseman Ajax Zappitello, right arm in a blue sling over a school-issued black windbreaker, dapping up freshman goalie Brian Ruppel and other teammates with his healthy left wing.

Zappitello, typically one of three key starters at close defense for No. 7 Maryland, was injured the last time the Terps and the fifth-ranked Blue Jays played, just 12 days earlier in College Park in their regular season finale. That’s the annual, expected game everyone in lacrosse circles in these parts points to all year long, the one when the giant, Big Ten-conceived 25-pound wooden crab-shaped rivalry trophy is handed out to the winner, which this year was Johns Hopkins for the first time since 2019.

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The absence of Zappitello, a junior from Portland, Oregon (yes, they play lacrosse there, too), from the Terps lineup was also symbolic of Maryland’s 2023 season, one defined by a pile of unfortunate injuries as much as the freshmen and other new starters already being counted on to replace those upperclassmen who led the Terps to an unbeaten national championship season in 2022 and lost only once in 2021, in another title game. This year was only the second time Maryland (10-4, 5-2 Big Ten) hadn’t won the Big Ten regular season title since 2015.

The challenges started way back in fall ball when junior attackman Eric Malever suffered season-ending leg injuries and continued in February when returning starting goalie Logan McNaney tore his ACL in the Terps’ opener against Loyola. Ruppel (Catonsville) stepped in between the pipes (and went viral against No. 1 Virginia) and the Terps offense, as the season has gone on, has found more of a flow, particularly since freshman and Georgia native Braden Erksa’s emergence as a go-to threat.

“This year has been very different,” said graduate student defenseman Brett Makar, a likely early pick in Tuesday’s Premier Lacrosse League draft. “This group’s young. Throughout the year we’ve had to learn from adversity through injuries, and the next guy stepping up. We’ve kind of just found a way, even though it’s taken some duct tape, we’re strapping it up.”

Freshman defender Will Schaller, who knocked Hopkins attackman Johnathan Peshko’s helmet off in the early going, was the latest to be called on, starting in place of Zappitello. He helped limit Blue Jays’ senior attackman and leading scorer Jacob Angelus to just one assist and a startling zero shots. To help with depth, junior short-stick midfielder Nick Redd picked up a long pole again. And on the offensive end, Owen Murphy, who transferred from Johns Hopkins after the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, started at attack in place of Daniel Maltz (illness), and Murphy starred with three key second-half goals. Murphy — who declined to be interviewed afterward by The Big Ten Network and wasn’t made available to other media postgame — himself battled injuries earlier this year, including a bad ankle, and didn’t play much in the regular-season matchup with Hopkins. His game-high three scores gave the Terps a big lift, and Erksa, Ryan Siracusa, Zach Whittier (Georgetown Prep) and Jack Brennan scored two goals apiece.

“I’m proud of the way our guys fought and battled,” Maryland coach John Tillman said. “It certainly wasn’t a work of art or necessarily clean, but we had great effort. The guys competed and stuck together. … Of the seven guys that were playing defense all game, Brett was the only guy that played last year. I don’t think I’ve slept a lot this year, and certainly not this week. There’s no substitute for experience.”

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Maryland now faces No. 15 Michigan (8-6, 4-3 Big Ten) in the conference championship game at 5:30 p.m. Saturday — the eve of the NCAA tournament Selection Sunday — at Homewood Field. The game will air live on Big Ten Network, and it will be another notable rematch. The Wolverines, who were a 17-15 winner over No. 4 and tournament top-seed Penn State in Thursday’s other semifinal, upset the then-top-ranked Terps, 16-11, on April 1 in College Park and are seeking the automatic qualifying bid into the national postseason that comes with a conference postseason title. Johns Hopkins, meanwhile, will (maybe) sit and watch and await their national postseason first-round opponent.

It’ll be kind of a strange setting for the final, with the Terps playing a team other than the Blue Jays on iconic Homewood Field. It also might serve as some motivation for Johns Hopkins, which will likely still get a high seed in the national postseason, but certainly doesn’t want to watch Maryland play another game on their home turf without having any say in the outcome.

“I don’t want to say I want the guys to come here and watch the game or anything like that,” Blue Jays third-year coach Peter Milliman said inside the Cordish Lacrosse Center after the semifinal, “but it’s definitely going to hurt watching our conference rivals play a championship game on our home field. The most significant takeaway is that the next opportunity we have together, we have to earn a chance to stay together. Maybe that wasn’t the case today and that crept in a little bit, I don’t know.”

The Blue Jays, led by graduate student midfielder Garrett Degnon’s three goals, showed flashes of what’s made for their best season under Milliman so far, but not quite enough to best a duct-taped archrival. After Johns Hopkins raced to a 3-0 first-quarter lead, Maryland settled down as Luke Wierman evened up the faceoff battle, and finished 13 for 26. The Terps clawed back, worked long possessions, and got a pair of consecutive scores on rebounds in front of Blue Jays goalie Tim Marcille to go up 6-4 at halftime. In the second half, the Maryland offense extended the lead, in part by scoring several deflating backside goals with little time left on the 90-second shot clock.

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Meantime, the Blue Jays’ offense appeared rushed on a few possessions and were 1-for-4 on powerplay opportunities. “We lacked a little bit of the urgency that we came out with,” Milliman said. “We started to get a little bit impatient, a little casual on the perimeter. Sometimes you make an average pass against a good guy [defender] that is approaching well and disrupts the other end of it, the ball ends up on the ground.”

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Another difference was the Terps also scored early at times, like to cap a decisive three-goal third-quarter run. After consecutive goals by Whittier and Murphy and a save on a weak shot from Degnon, Ruppel tear-dropped an outlet pass to Schaller near midfield who tossed ahead to Murphy for a quick transition score to make it 11-7 with 2:27 left in the third quarter. The Blue Jays never got much closer from there.

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“We did not have our best day,” Milliman said. “We played well for the first few minutes, then it seemed like we lost a little bit of that fire and maybe were a little more hopeful that we were going to get it back than assertive to take it.”

That’s kind of a strange sentiment to hear after a Maryland-Johns Hopkins game, but such was the context of these two meetings not far apart, and just ahead of the NCAA tournament for which both have solid positioning. One duct-taped team was looking to prove itself against an opponent at relatively full strength that had already ousted their archrival just recently.

So it goes, back and forth. Pass the crab, when it’s around.

“You feel it throughout the week,” Maryland short-stick defender Dante Trader Jr. (McDonogh), also a defensive back on the Terps’ football team, said of the anticipation in practices ahead of facing the Blue Jays, “but once you’re in a game you’re like, ‘Whoa, this is serious.’ This rivalry, you can’t even put words to it.”

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But we try.

Games to watch

Every game played this weekend is one to watch as Selection Sunday is imminent. Conference championship games will determine automatic qualifiers to the NCAA tournaments, which begin next week, and play into selection committee discussions about seedings and at-large bids.

Aside from the Terps’ meeting with Michigan Saturday in the Big Ten men’s title game, the No. 10 Maryland women (14-5, 6-2 Big Ten) face No. 1 Northwestern (16-1, 7-0) in the Big Ten women’s championship game at 8 p.m. Saturday in Columbus, Ohio. It’ll be their second meeting in three weeks, too, with the Wildcats winning 13-6 last time.

The No. 9 Loyola women (16-2, 10-0 Patriot League) play No. 15 Army (15-2, 9-1), a double-overtime winner against No. 25 Navy (13-6, 7-4) in the Patriot League semifinals on Thursday, in the league title game at 2 p.m. Saturday. The game will air on CBS Sports Network.

The No. 18 Johns Hopkins women (8-8, 4-3), who lost to Rutgers 15-14 in a Big Ten tournament quarterfinal, will await their fate on Sunday, but the Blue Jays seem likely to get an at-large bid.

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End lines

After Michigan beat Penn State, 17-15, in the other Big Ten men’s semifinal on Thursday, I asked Wolverines coach Kevin Conry, a former Blue Jays midfielder, if he was able to use anything from his days at Johns Hopkins as motivation for his players when bringing them into Baltimore.

He said the team ate Wednesday night at Sammy’s Trattoria, the Italian restaurant that’s been the night-before-dinner spot for the Blue Jays program starting under former coach Dave Pietramala, whom Conry played for in the former coach’s first four seasons helming the Jays from 2001 to 2004.

“If you’re going to pick a time to go to Sammy’s, it’s the Big Ten championship,” Conry said. “We were fueled by chicken parm and penne alla vodka.”

Corey McLaughlin is a veteran writer and editor who has covered sports in Baltimore for a decade, including for Baltimore magazine, USA Lacrosse Magazine and several other publications.

This story has been updated with the correct spelling of Johnathan Peshko and Zach Whittier’s surnames.

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