The Maryland men’s lacrosse team’s road to the Final Four literally took an unexpected detour last week.

On May 17, as the Terps traveled to Long Island, New York, for their NCAA quarterfinal game against Duke, the coach bus carrying the defensive players broke down on the Cross Bronx Expressway, near Yankee Stadium. If you’ve ever driven the heavily trafficked route, you know the environment can feel like a competitive arena itself, of asphalt, steel, exhaust, impatient motorists and honking horns, especially as New York City rush hour nears.

“It was 2 o’clock. The traffic is starting to build,” Maryland coach John Tillman recalled of the bus parking on the shoulder of the highway. “Cars are whizzing by.”

The Terps were supposed to practice that afternoon at a high school field an hour away but didn’t know how they would get everyone there. Send the bus with the offensive players and staff that was ahead of them back to pick them up? Try to get another bus there? “Great situation,” Terps faceoff taker Luke Wierman deadpanned. They ended up calling for Ubers to get to practice — but only five hours after they had planned, followed by a late dinner at an accommodating Italian restaurant.

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“It was like, ‘All right, fellas, these are life skills,’” Tillman said. “You just got to figure it out. The guys just didn’t miss a beat. At this point, when things aren’t going well, guys can just roll with it.”

The coach was talking about the logistics of getting off the expressway, but he could just have easily been describing the course of Maryland’s season.

“We weren’t the most consistent team we’ve had, but the guys were very resilient,” Tillman said.

The Terps, who have won two national titles under Tillman (in 2017 and in 2022’s undefeated campaign), are back in the Final Four for the 10th time since he took over as head coach in 2011. Maryland will play Virginia at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia in the program’s 29th NCAA semifinal appearance since the tournament began in 1971. The winner will face Denver or defending national champion Notre Dame for the national title on Monday.

At times this season, it didn’t look like these Terps would make it this far. Yes, they had great parts, such as top cover defenseman Ajax Zappitello, who this week was named the Lt. Raymond J. Enners Outstanding Player of the Year in NCAA Division I — the first close defenseman to win the award since 1993 — and they got back former All-America goalie Logan McNaney, who missed most of last year with a knee injury, and grad student Wierman, a game-changing faceoff taker, too. All were starters on Maryland’s 18-0 team in 2022.

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Last year, Maryland’s season ended in a disappointing loss to Army at home in the NCAA first round. This year, the Terps’ Big Ten campaign got off to an inauspicious start with a one-goal loss to Michigan, which followed a 14-10 defeat at home against then-fourth-ranked Virginia on March 16. At that point, they had a 5-3 record, with three of the wins needing overtime (against Brown, Richmond and Syracuse).

More recently, the Terps were held to a season-low five goals against Johns Hopkins on April 20. In its next game, Maryland was bounced from the Big Ten tournament semifinals by Penn State, 19-9, just three weeks ago. In that game, leading scorer Braden Erksa was stretchered off the field and spent a night in the hospital after a hit in which his head banged against the turf.

Maryland coach John Tillman talks with his team. (Courtesy of the University of Maryland)

Maryland nabbed the seventh seed in the NCAA tournament, but late in the year Tillman and the Maryland staff went back to the drawing board as though it wree the preseason. They wanted to create a more efficient offense and manage the absence of Erksa, a sophomore who was limited in practice ahead of the Terps’ first-round game with Princeton.

Senior Daniel Kelly (Calvert Hall) replaced Erksa, who ran out of the box as a midfielder, on the starting attack. Senior Eric Malever shifted from attack to midfield and junior Eric Spanos shifted from the midfield to attack.

“You’re not 100% sure it will work, but we tried some things in practice,” Tillman said. “If things aren’t going well, you can just keep doing what you’re doing and hope it gets better, or maybe you shake things up. We felt like it was time to do that.”

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In the postseason, the Terps have averaged 15 goals. Erksa has run out of the box as a midfielder, and senior attacker Daniel Maltz, grad student midfielder Ryan Siracusa, Spanos and Malever have stepped up as the top goal scorers, though Erksa also scored twice in the fourth quarter, including the go-ahead goal, against second-seeded Duke last week in a 14-11 win. In that one, the Terps finished the second half hot, outscoring the Blue Devils 9-3 and making the most of the possessions that Wierman (20-of-29 on faceoffs) provided. Senior Jack Koras (Loyola Blakefield), a mainstay in the midfield, scored twice too.

“We’re happy we’re maximizing our time together,” Wierman said. “We hope to further that this weekend. … We have some guys on this team that haven’t been to a Final Four.”

Now, Maryland (10-5) draws fifth-seeded Virginia (12-5) in a continuation of a series that has defined the elite levels of college lacrosse as much as any in the last half-decade. This will be the teams’ fourth meeting in the last five NCAA tournaments.

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On Sunday, the Cavaliers defeated third-seeded Johns Hopkins, which had beaten them in the regular season in Charlottesville, in double overtime at Towson University to advance to the Final Four. Virginia’s aggressive brand of defense and between-the-boxes strategy ultimately won out and helped to cause Hopkins’ season-high 25 turnovers.

On offense, Virginia is battle-tested and dangerous. On attack, the Cavaliers bring arguably the game’s best player, graduate student Connor Shellenberger; the NCAA Division I men’s all-time leader in goals, Payton Cormier; and an emerging star in freshman McCabe Millon, the former McDonogh attackman who had six points against Hopkins.

“He looked like a very confident player in a big stage and didn’t bat an eye,” Tillman said.

Virginia sophomore goalie Kyle Morris (Gilman) had something to do with its quarterfinal win, too. He relieved three-year starter Matthew Nunes six minutes into the game and made eight saves, including two in overtime. Morris could make his first NCAA start Saturday. That will be among the storylines to watch.

“I love how Kyle came in and made the saves you need your goalie to make, the 13-, 14-yard shot on the run. Kyle ate those up,” Cavaliers coach Lars Tiffany said. “It just calmed the defense down.”

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Both Morris and Nunes are right-handed, but Nunes is more experienced in Virginia’s clearing game and playing out of the crease, while Morris has been stopping shots better in practice. Tiffany said the Cavs had only one day of intense practice this week to change the calculus on a starter.

Tillman said Maryland will prepare for both goalies, “knowing they’re both very capable and highly recruited. We’ve got to get good shots … and really not overthink it.”

The Terps have an experienced playoff goalie in McNaney, and Zappitello is familiar with Shellenberger, his likely mark, from games over the years. That’ll be a key matchup. Shellenberger was the second overall pick in the recent Premier Lacrosse League collegiate draft, and Zappitello was third.

The faceoff battle will also likely be critical. Wierman is one of the game’s best. He won 62% of draws this season, third in the nation, and became Maryland’s all-time leader in faceoff wins. Virginia counters primarily with Navy transfer Anthony Ghobriel (56%).

The good news for all involved: It’s a short drive to Philly. “We’re hoping that everyone in Terp Nation — maybe delay going to the beach for a weekend and come to Philly,” Tillman said. “There’s plenty to see and do. You can run the Rocky steps or something like that.”

Maryland’s team bus won’t have to drive through New York City to get there, either, though maybe the experience wasn’t entirely bad. Of last week’s adventure, Tillman said, “We’ve joked those are going to be stories that these guys will tell 20 years from now.” With a win on Saturday, at least, they’ll have a few more.

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.