John Tillman loves the makeup of the Terrapins men’s lacrosse team this season, and it’s not just because he can lean on the leadership and experience of 20 upperclassmen.
Those veterans did lead the team to comfortable wins over Mount St. Mary’s, 23-6, and Hartford, 16-4, to start the season, and they should be crucial again in Saturday’s national championship rematch with No. 1 Loyola.
But the third-year coach said the No. 2 Terps can’t create a winning environment with experience alone. They’ll need help from the squad’s 14 freshmen to do that.
“When you have young guys, those guys are hungry and super eager. There’s value to that,” Tillman said. “If the youth can be planted with the older guys, it can be a potentially really good season for us.”
It hasn’t been easy for the Terps to combine the young players with the veterans on game days. The squad returned the nucleus from a group that reached the title game a year ago, leaving little playing time to go around for a freshman class Inside Lacrosse ranked No. 6 in the nation.
Still, the few rookies who earned their way onto the field haven’t taken long to contribute.
Junior defenseman Brian Cooper said freshman defender Matt Dunn has been critical to a defense that’s allowed just 10 goals in two games. Rookie Andrew Walsh has won six of seven faceoffs, and freshman Bradlee Lord has earned playing time on a midfield ripe with talent.
In Lord’s first career game, he notched a goal in the second quarter against Mount St. Mary’s on Feb. 12.
“The leadership on our team is so good. The seniors, juniors and sophomores really help guide the way,” Lord said. “The transition [to college lacrosse] has been pretty smooth.”
Not every young player has been able to crack the rotation, though. So for a majority of the team’s freshmen — a group filled with high school standouts and nationally ranked prospects — the only opportunity to prove their worth is on the practice field.
That dynamic creates a competitive atmosphere in practice, Cooper said. And that’s vital to a Terps team that needs to prepare to play seven ranked teams in its 11 remaining regular-season contests.
“All the freshmen come out to play really hard in practice every day,” Cooper said. “They give us a great look on the scout team.”
The intensity at practice has been amped even a bit higher this week. While the Terps stress focusing on one game at a time, midfielder John Haus said the team values Saturday’s matchup more than most. After all, the Greyhounds beat the Terps in the national championship nine months ago.
So this week, roles have been reversed. The returning players are motivating the freshmen. They’re telling the freshmen how it feels to fall one win short of the title. They’re reminding them that Loyola was the team celebrating last spring, not the Terps.
And the freshman, Lord said, are intent on making sure that doesn’t happen again.
“We talk about it a lot in practice, how it felt to see last year’s seniors go out that way,” Lord said. “As a freshman, it’s important for us to help. Not just on the field, but also off the field, just giving the seniors that edge.”