May 30, 2011

Terps Forge Journey on Heartache, Adversity

by Corey McLaughlin |

Senior attackman Ryan Young (left) and five-year senior long-stick midfielder Brian Farrell -- sporting the initials of Ryan's late mother Maria on his helmet in purple tape and sticker -- celebrate together during Maryland's 9-4 win over Duke in Friday's NCAA semifinal.

© John Strohsacker/

BALTIMORE -- The day after Maryland lost to Johns Hopkins in overtime of an intense rivalry game April 16, Ryan Young traveled home to Long Island to be with his mother, Maria, getting there in time to be with her on the Sunday night when she passed away from a nearly four-year battle with pancreatic cancer. Just over a week later, the Maryland men's lacrosse team showed up for the funeral at St. Mary's Church in Manhasset, N.Y., an image those in attendance won't forget.

When this is the type of adversity encountered off the field, the challenges of ground balls, faceoffs and scouting the opposition's best offensive players are put into perspective. So too are coaching changes, which these Terrapins endured prior to the season, or perceived slights, such as being unseeded for the NCAA tournament, or long bus trips, such as a 400-plus mile bus ride to Foxborough, Mass., for a quarterfinal game against Syracuse.

John Tillman, previously the coach at Harvard, took over for the forced-to-resign Dave Cottle last summer, and with his hire, Tillman promised to not rock the boat too much with a group of 17 seniors who had been there, done that, in a way, except for reaching the final four. As one Division I coach said in preseason, "He walked into a great situation with all those seniors."

That may be the first impression, but Tillman had to win over players who felt the university disrespected their fired head coach, who had recruited them and led them to three consecutive quarterfinal appearances. Tillman wanted to put his own small stamp on the team – this is what coaches like to do – but as he said, he felt these new players looked at him like, "All right, Coach Tillman, don't screw this up for us.'"

"We really had to prove ourselves," Tillman said of the coaching staff, which also included first-year assistant Kevin Warne. "The biggest thing for us is we're not geniuses. We're not going to reinvent the wheel here. You're close. All we want to do is bring what we feel comfortable doing, and maybe just a couple tweaks here and there will help."

The tightrope needed to be navigated, and if all's well that ends well, Tillman did it quite well. "We knew we wouldn't be able to do this if we weren't on the same page as the coaches. We trusted them," senior close defenseman Brett Schmidt said.

Maryland now has the chance to win its first national championship in 36 years Monday afternoon when the Terrapins take on ACC foe Virginia at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. If the semifinal game against Duke provided any indication, the crowd will be red and loud in Maryland's favor.

Even for non-Maryland fans, the Terrapins' story provides plenty to cheer about. The coaching change was one thing, but life and death is another. Spend time around the Maryland lacrosse team, and you're constantly reminded of the impact, reaction and inspiration drawn from the passing of Young's mother.

Young, even before the season, was the quarterback of the Maryland offense, the attackman who made or was supposed to make the Terps go. Since 2008, his mother fought cancer, but her story only really became public this season, when she neared the end of that fight and decided to talk about it openly through the university. She championed pancreatic cancer research and the Lustgarten Foundation, a nonprofit organization supporting the treatment and prevention of pancreatic cancer. The color representative of the foundation is purple, and is worn on shirts and hats by players, coaches, staff and fans since her passing.

Maria made a final trip to watch her sons, Ryan and twin brother Kevin, a Duke midfielder, play each other when Maryland faced the Blue Devils in Durham March 5. When she returned home, she was soon hospitalized. Ryan raced back home spend time with her, and he joined the Maryland team for a game that next Saturday at Towson. But in the following weeks, Young often left for Long Island following Maryland games and returned to College Park on Tuesday or Wednesday for practice.

Senior attackman Grant Catalino has overcome a late-season hand injury to come up clutch in these NCAA playoffs, including the game-winning goal in overtime against Syracuse and three goals Friday in the win over Duke.

© John Strohsacker/

Giving the player time and space was of course the right thing to do, but as Tillman explained correctly and practically of Young after Maryland beat Duke on Saturday, "He's the quarterback of our offense. When he didn't show up until Wednesday, it limits what you do."

But when Maria Young passed away, the team didn't think twice about cancelling practice and preparation time to attend the funeral in New York early on a Monday morning. It was a powerful decision.

"I live with Ryan," Maryland senior midfielder Dan Burns said Sunday, "and through everything going on, he never really talks about it. He always keeps it to himself. With everything happening, the way it happened was miserable, but I feel the way it happened during the season instead of after the season helped him out a lot. He had a team of 50 guys and a coaching staff."

"We all drove up on buses to that funeral," Burns said. "I feel like he doesn't have a lot of family, but we're his extended family and we'll continue to be. He'll never ask for the help, or he'll never ask for support, but just being able to give that to him without asking, showing up to that funeral in our Terp buses, showing we were there for him. And he knows that we're all there for him."

Injuries limited Maryland them down the stretch, too. Second-leading scorer Grant Catalino, only behind Young, missed time with an injured hand, and Joe Cummings with an injured arm. Both did not see the field in Maryland's regular season finale, a loss to Colgate that essentially dropped the Terps into the pool of unseeded at-large teams for the NCAA tournament.

That ultimately led to a third game with North Carolina this season, on the road in the first round of the tournament. Complete with a hidden-ball trick from Catalino and Brian Farrell, and faceoff domination by Curtis Holmes and wingmen, Maryland won comfortably, 13-6.

Tillman was asked about the growth of the team shown by winning against a team in their third meeting, like Maryland did against North Carolina that day and like the Terps did against Duke Saturday night in the national semifinals. Tillman answered with a several-minute long, determined answer, that started with: "This journey has been a lot harder than I think anybody really knows."

He talked about the coaching change, one which he's handled in a classy manner, keeping Cottle in mind and making a point to thank him publicly. Tillman talked about the large group of seniors, who, without a final four appearance, would go down as another Maryland group that wasn't able to bring home the national title. He talked about Ryan Young's mother, and the impact she had on the team.

"I think what happened was everybody else stepped up their play to make it easier for Ryan. That adversity really brought us together," Tillman said. "Hearing Maria Young's story inspired everybody to work that much harder. To go through three years of chemo and radiation, and fight the fight for her three boys and make sure they graduated, you can't not be inspired. You have to practice hard. You can't ever complain. You've got to sell out for each other."

"To see the kids rally for Ryan and the families and our program rally for Ryan and this community and our alums, it's been unbelievable. I'm just so proud to be a part of this, regardless of whether we won this weekend or what happened ... I'm pumped for our guys, because they have looked out for each other."

Now we'll look at them on Memorial Day.

comments powered by Disqus

More Headlines