In league games, history doesn’t matter. That’s the message No. 2 Maryland men’s lacrosse coach John Tillman drilled into his team ahead of its matchup against No. 9 Penn State, a team he’d beaten 10 out of 11 times in his College Park tenure heading into Saturday.
He noted that these games usually turn into slogs — and was right. The Terps and Nittany Lions traded goals in a high-powered first half. But it was the Maryland defense that starred in the second, holding Penn State to just two goals as the Terps opened Big Ten play at home with a 13-10 win.
“You talk to them about Ravens-Steelers... those are slugfests,” Tillman said after his record against Penn State improved to 11-1. “In the third quarter it went from really high scoring to just kind of a slugfest and you have to dig in.”
The win came hours after No. 1 Notre Dame lost to No. 3 Virginia, giving Tillman’s squad a chance to retake the top spot for the first time in the USILA polls since the preseason.
That’s where Maryland (6-2) finished last season after an undefeated run that culminated in the program’s fourth NCAA title. While the path hasn’t been as smooth for this year’s team, one reshaped after offseason departures, the Terps look poised for another deep run.
They held Penn State (5-3) without a goal for over 26 minutes in a stretch that spanned the third and fourth quarters.
“Just talking to each other and having trust in one another,” was the key, defender Ajax Zappitello said. “For us, it’s just falling back on being one cohesive unit defensively.”
He and graduate student Brett Makar started all 18 games a season ago and grew together. They’re among the few returning players and are surrounded by youth and inexperience that has caused mistakes this year.
Maryland let Penn State go on a 6-2 run that trimmed the lead to just one. But the Terps regrouped and held steady to force the scoreless drought.
“We realize we’re gonna make mistakes,” Zappitello said. “We’re not going to hold anybody scoreless, that’s not our goal… We just got to be better the next week and I think today was a step in the right direction.”
While the defense brought back key pieces from the title-winning squad, such as Makar and Zappitello, the Terps’ scoring depth was decimated by offseason departures and an injury. That forced Tillman to readjust without the five players who led last year’s team in points — including Tewaaraton Award winner Logan Wisnauskas.
Maryland features a more balanced attack this year, one on full display Saturday. No Terp scored more than three goals but eight different players flung shots past the Penn State goalkeeper.
Five different Terps scored during a 6-0 second-quarter run that turned Maryland’s one-goal deficit, its only one of the game, into a five-goal lead.
Junior midfielder Jack Koras, who entered the season with 18 career goals, notched his third straight hat trick against the Nittany Lions. Two of his three goals came in the fourth quarter and helped the Terps hold onto their lead through the game’s conclusion.
But Maryland’s inefficiency — an issue that has plagued it all year — showed again against Penn State as just 13 of the 51 Terps’ shots found the net. The team’s shooting percentage dipped to just 27.8 percent after the game, well below last year’s 39.1 percent.
The offensive woes crested in Maryland’s second game of the season, a loss to then-unranked Loyola where it scored a season-low seven goals despite outshooting their opponents by 16. The defeat also saw one of the mainstays from last year’s team, goalie Logan McNaney, exit with what The Baltimore Sun later reported as an ACL tear.
Backup Teddy Dolan stepped in the next game for his first career start but saved just nine shots while giving up 12 goals.
That opened the door for Brian Ruppel, the first true freshman to start at goalie for the Terps since 1993. The Catonsville product has now started five straight games and starred against then-No. 1 Virginia, making three acrobatic saves in a Maryland overtime win.
He made just three saves while giving up eight goals to Penn State in the first half. But he paired with the defense to tame the Nittany Lions in a second half where he made six saves and allowed just two goals.
Tillman praised the freshman’s composure after the game.
“That’s one of the most underrated things about a goalie … you get beat, you got to walk out there like you’re the man again and this muscle sometimes takes over, right?” he said, punctuating the last point by pointing to his brain.
Ruppel’s performance — inconsistent but occasionally stellar — was emblematic of Maryland’s conference opener.
The Terps weren’t perfect Saturday. They missed shots, committed more turnovers than Penn State and had defensive miscues that got past their goalie — who recorded the lowest save percentage of his young career.
But in the end, it didn’t matter.
This is still Maryland and even if perfection eludes it, Tillman’s program appears to still be the class of the conference — and potentially the country.
Varun Shankar is a junior at the University of Maryland. His work has also appeared in The Washington Post and Charlotte Observer.