February 27, 2013

Lambrecht: Long Way to May, but Fear the Turtle

by Gary Lambrecht | LaxMagazine.com

Senior midfielder Landon Carr is one of 20 upperclassmen on the Terps' 2013 roster. There's no shortage of experience in College Park as Maryland seeks to win its first national title since 1975.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

In the wake of its 12-10 victory at Loyola on Saturday, a decision that was more one-sided than the final score hinted, the postgame interview room involving victorious Maryland was telling.

With coach John Tillman, senior midfielder John Haus and junior goalie Niko Amato fielding questions, the Terrapins' representatives were dry, robotic, almost dismissive of their achievement with their businesslike demeanor.

Some media members persisted with the overplayed "rematch" and "revenge" storylines, fishing for confirmation that the Terps derived special satisfaction from beating the Greyhounds nine months after getting whipped by them in the NCAA title game.

The Terps, starting with Tillman, practically rolled their eyes and yawned in response. Tillman, whose personality rarely emits a whiff of folksy or color or drama in such settings, might as well have been staring at his watch while wondering if he could leave to get started on preparation for No. 19 Duke on Saturday.

Amato and Haus took turns refusing to attach any special meaning to Maryland's very impressive afternoon — a day in which the Terps scored 10 of the game's first 14 goals and knocked out championship goalie Jack Runkel early in the second half.

Rest assured, this Maryland team, with the hard-charging Tillman setting the tone, knows it has what it takes to make some special history in College Park.

The top-ranked Terps know they have the necessary mechanical parts. They include scoring balance, led by a superb first midfield that is bolstered by the high lacrosse IQs of Haus and Jake Bernhardt; an athletic, ball-hawking defense led by senior long-stick midfield Jesse Bernhardt; a killer stopper in Amato, who zapped Loyola's shooting confidence and is in the best shape of his career. The Terps also have among the best, 1-2 faceoff punches in the game in Charlie Raffa and Curtis Holmes.

It's the maturity and experience of this crew that could pay the largest dividends for the Maryland faithful, who have only waited about three generations to celebrate on Memorial Day. That is arguably the most head-scratching drought in Division I.

Johns Hopkins failed in 17 straight seasons after 1987, before going undefeated and winning it all in 2005. Twenty years have passed since North Carolina has played in a final four, let alone won a title. A quarter-century has gone by without Cornell holding the championship plaque. The Maryland goose egg is approaching an astonishing 38 years (1975).

Tillman's first two seasons as Dave Cottle's controversial replacement served notice at Maryland. Tillman is obsessed with winning and all of the improve-every-day details that go into it. It's no lucky accident that he took two flawed Maryland teams — a combined 25-11 in 2011 and 2012 — to Memorial Day, a day Cottle never reached with the Terps in nine seasons.

This Maryland group is 3-0, playing lockdown defense, and next must go to Duke to beat a wobbly Blue Devils team that probably has some inspired play waiting for the Terps on Saturday. Maryland isn't close to perfect, not yet. The Terps need a reliable scorer or two to emerge on their second midfield. Their attack can finish well, but no one puts fear into opposing defenses as dodgers and one-on-one creators.

But Maryland, as advertised, has much going for it in this age of lacrosse parity.

Their first midfield line can stretch a defense. Their close defense of junior Michael Ehrhardt and sophomores Goran Murray and Casey Ikeda — who smothered Loyola sharpshooter Mike Sawyer for much of the day — can get in and stay in an attack unit's grill. The offense shares the ball well and looks like it will shoot at least 30 percent most days against the competition that will only get tougher. Amato has the tools to be a top three goalie.

What I like most about Maryland is its core of experience in the form of a combined 20 seniors and juniors. They have been through the ups and downs of some roller coaster regular seasons. They have tasted the sting that sloppy overconfidence produces. Mostly, they have been through the fire of postseasons that have brought Maryland painfully close to the goal that has eluded College Park for too long.

Fear the turtle? No sense going there in late February, just as Haus and Amato said after the dismantling of the Greyhounds.

But this Maryland team, which has the grit and athleticism of a typical Terps squad and is sprinkled with some exceptional talent at key positions, looks and sounds deadly serious about getting it done.

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