It’d be difficult to blame Terrapins men’s lacrosse coach John Tillman for relying on his starting midfield a bit too much.
The third-year coach has watched the group — comprised of preseason All-Americans Mike Chanenchuk and John Haus and fifth-year senior Jake Bernhardt — tally a total of 39 points through five games this season. He also leans on the unit’s 11 combined years of college experience to ensure that his game plan is executed smoothly.
But as the season has progressed, Tillman has become more comfortable when forced to turn to his bench. And in Sunday’s 13-7 victory over Stony Brook, his faith in the second-line midfield paid off.
Reserve midfielder Joe LoCascio tied for the team high with two goals in the No. 1 Terps’ fifth-straight victory and freshman Bradlee Lord added a team-high two assists. There didn’t seem to be a dip in production when the reserve midfielders took over, and LoCascio even notched the game’s first score on a feed from Lord.
“It’s awesome to be on the second line, to give [the starters] a break and provide some energy off the bench,” LoCascio said. “The coaches are doing a good job bringing us along in the film room and on the field.”
Junior Brendan Saylor joins underclassmen Lord and LoCascio to form a talented second-line midfield for the nation’s top-ranked team. But the unit is also rife with inexperience.
So Tillman doesn’t ask much of his young reserves. He tells them to stay within themselves, to make simple decisions rather than search for a spectacular play. And Sunday, the group seemed to do just that.
“We’ve been really adamant about telling those guys that you don’t have to be perfect,” Tillman said. “But when you get in the game, you just have to have a good idea of what we’re doing and make smart choices.”
Those intelligent decisions seem to be translating into results. Lord and LoCascio are tied for seventh on the team with six points apiece this year, and Saylor is right behind them with five.
They didn’t progress without some help from the team’s starters, though. LoCascio said his more experienced teammates are constantly there to answer questions and provide encouragement.
“The older kids, the first-line guys, they do a great job mentoring us and helping us out,” LoCascio said. “They keep us confident and comfortable.”
In turn, the Terps’ second-line midfield is providing a solid option should the starters struggle. Not only have the younger Terps produced on game day, but they also consistently provide heightened competition in practice.
“I feel like these guys are really making strides,” Haus said. “It’s a little easier for us to be confident in them because we do see them making plays in practice every day.”
It’s a good thing Haus has faith because the Terps will likely have to rely on their reserves more and more as the season progresses. The team has avoided injury through five games this season, but it can’t be sure it’ll stay completely healthy the rest of the way.
And with three games against top-11 opponents remaining on the schedule, the Terps’ starters are likely to play more fourth-quarter minutes than they have during the early part of the season, which was defined by blowout victories.
There’s no telling exactly when the Terps will need to lean more heavily on their bench, but Tillman said that time will inevitably come.
“As the year goes on, depth becomes more of an issue,” Tillman said. “You need to be confident that [the second midfield] can make plays and can keep the offense rolling. If you can’t do that, it will hurt you down the stretch.”
The Terps’ young second line has only played five games together, so it’s tough to tell how good it’ll be when the NCAA tournament rolls around. But the unit seems to be improving. After all, Lord and LoCascio were at the forefront of Sunday’s victory.
Tillman might always feel a little anxious when one of his starting midfielders jogs off the field. Slowly, though, the second-line midfield is earning his trust.
“I feel like we’ve made some progress there,” Tillman said. “Showing some confidence in those guys and giving them the opportunities is what allows them to grow.”