Maryland men’s lacrosse coach John Tillman is always meticulous in his game planning. Maybe even more so this week ahead of the third-ranked Terps’ visit to top-ranked Virginia at 2 p.m. Saturday afternoon.
Asked a question on a video call Thursday morning about what Maryland (4-2) might do to “slow down Virginia’s offense” — they’re averaging 20 goals per game — Tillman delivered an extended explanation that, while wide-ranging, probably revealed just some of the worries he has facing the unbeaten and uniquely “organic” Cavaliers’ full-field attack, as he put it.
“There’s a number of things,” Tillman said. “Funny enough, it starts with your offense. They’re a team that gets in transition well. When you lose the ball on offense, you have to get back and defend odd-numbered situations.”
Then there’s the often overlooked intricacies of the on-the-fly subbing game. For instance, Virginia’s primary faceoff taker, Petey LaSalla, often stays on the field after the draw, creating matchup problems. Or sometimes he fakes subbing off, which could lead to an unsettled 6-on-5 opportunity if they don’t match up correctly. A lingering defenseman near the sideline could do the same in transition or in a settled pace.
“Those are scenarios that you really have to work through,” Tillman said. “It all happens super-fast.”
And in the even more typically overlooked clearing game, the Cavaliers will press with a 10- or 9-man ride. If they force a turnover, they’re off and running downfield in unpredictable patterns. “You can’t just say they’re going to do this and we’re going to do this and it’s over,” said Tillman, who would very much like to be able to say that. “They can attack you in a very unscripted, spontaneous opportunity. It’s hard to prepare for. It’s totally organic.
“And then you’re trying to learn their schemes and sets and personnel. We call it ‘KYP’ — know your personnel. If guys are in certain spots, does that tip you off of to something they might be doing?”
One obvious situation: If you press out on Virginia’s shooters, Tillman said, “they’ll carve you up inside,” pointing to Virginia’s quarterback on offense, Connor Shellenberger (35 points), who can beat defenders one-on-one to feed or score around the cage. “There’s a lot that goes into it,” Tillman said. “Hopefully, I gave you as much as I could without boring you to death.”
Such is life inside the mind of the two-time national champion coach ahead of the biggest game of the season, against a team that’s 6-0 and more intertwined with the Terps’ recent history than any other.
Last year, Maryland went an unbeaten 18-0 to win the national title and beat then-defending champion Virginia, 18-9, in the NCAA tournament quarterfinals along the way. The season before, the Terps finished 15-1, with their only blemish a loss to the Cavaliers — in the national title game. This year’s rosters are different, of course, than either of those teams, but there are some familiar with the past matchups directly, in addition to Tillman and Virginia coach Lars Tiffany, a free-spirited sort whose team reflects his personality much as Maryland does Tillman’s.
For Maryland, graduate student defenseman Brett Makar and junior defenseman Ajax Zappitello, who marked Shellenberger and held him without a point for the first time in his career in the quarterfinal matchup last season, will play crucial roles in front of freshman goalie Brian Ruppel (Catonsville), who gets his first taste of the series.
Maryland’s faceoff specialist, Luke Wierman, will likely have a day-long battle with LaSalla worth watching. If a still-developing Terps offense, so far paced by attackmen Daniel Maltz (21 points) and Daniel Kelly (Calvert Hall, 18 points), can be efficient on offense, it’ll go a long way, too, as it can cut down on the helter-skelter full-field uncertainties Virginia can create in the transition and subbing game.
Earlier this month, the Cavs came to Homewood Field and led Johns Hopkins 5-0 in the first quarter of an 18-13 win. They hung 11 first-quarter goals on Harvard in what became a 25-21 victory in February, and eight against Richmond in a 25-8 win. Virginia hasn’t trailed after the first quarter yet this year.
“It’s like a Mike Tyson boxing match. Tyson was really good at coming out fast, and if you weren’t ready, he’d knock you out. It means being on guard in that first round,” Tillman said, “because if they can jump on you and get up four or five you’re playing catch-up the whole game. We have to make sure we’re on point early, focused and detail-oriented and creating a sense of urgency as well as we can. You get down to really good teams like this, it’s a really big challenge. You can come back, but you’ve made your job a lot harder.”
Talk about detail-oriented. This is Maryland first trip to Virginia’s Klockner Stadium — which has a grass surface — in a decade. So the Terps practiced on the soccer program’s grass field this week rather than the artificial turf Maryland usually practices and plays its home games on.
“Whether it’s the faceoff guys, or the ground balls, or your footing … the bounce is different. The other variable is weather. I think there’s rain headed this way and down there on Friday, so does that make it a little muddier track? That could change the type of shoes you need to wear — whether it’s screw-in or molded, so that’s a little different.”
Like we said, meticulous. Especially this week.
Edmondson’s role is indeed growing
Since Maryland freshman Kori Edmondson’s breakout game 11 days ago in a loss against unbeaten Denver, the midfielder has indeed has seen her role grow, as Terps coach Cathy Reese said it would.
Edmondson, the former McDonogh star and top recruit in this year’s Division I women’s rookie class, got her first start against William & Mary last Wednesday and scored four goals in a blowout win. She followed that up with a hat trick in a 15-6 win against Villanova on Saturday and another three goals and an assist in a 13-4 win over Georgetown on Wednesday night.
The Terps (6-3), still ranked 11th nationally, have won three straight and Edmondson is now third on the team in points with 19. Senior attackers Libby May (24 goals, 3 assists) and Eloise Clevenger (eight goals, 17 assists) are the top producers.
Loyola plays No. 2 Syracuse
The ninth-ranked Loyola women (5-2) rallied from a three-goal, first-half deficit to lead visiting, second-ranked Syracuse by one heading into the fourth quarter on Wednesday night, but the Orange scored the final three goals to win 9-7.
The Greyhounds now begin Patriot League play starting Saturday against Lehigh.
Games to watch
The No. 9 Johns Hopkins men (5-3), winners at unranked Syracuse last weekend, heads to Annapolis to face Navy (3-4) on Friday night and hosts Delaware (5-2) at 7 p.m. Sunday. The Blue Hens have been receiving votes in the coaches’ poll lately, but are right outside the top 20. Next Saturday, the Blue Jays begin Big Ten play at Michigan.
The No. 12 Loyola men (4-2, 1-0 Patriot League) got thumped on the road at No. 4 Duke, 17-9, last Friday, and has a conference game on tap Saturday at Bucknell.
An interesting subplot to the Maryland-Virginia men’s matchup: Both rosters include Division I football talent, one present and one past.
Terps defensive back Dante Trader Jr. (McDonogh) is in his first season as a short-stick defensive midfielder on the lacrosse team. Virginia graduate student midfielder Ricky Miezan was a captain and linebacker on the Stanford football team in the fall.
So there will be some athleticism on the field Saturday that some might not associate with college lacrosse. For example, Trader delivered a (legal) football-like hit a few weeks ago in overtime of the Terps’ matchup with Notre Dame.
Trader has 15 ground balls, five caused turnover, and three goals this season, including one in Maryland’s 16-9 win last Saturday at Albany.
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.