October 7, 2013

30 in 30: Maryland Working in Heralded Freshman Class

by Corey McLaughlin | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter | McLaughlin Archive

Heralded Maryland freshman attackman Matt Rambo is "definitely a really good player," Terps senior midfielder Mike Chanenchuk said. "He kind of has the whole skill set. He's got both hands, he's really fundamental and he's a quick player, quick with his hands."
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

Get your popcorn ready.

About three-quarters through a lively two-hour practice on campus in College Park, Md., last Tuesday morning, Maryland's senior goalie, Niko Amato, gobbled up a 12-yard left-handed shot from the right alley by heralded freshman attackman Matt Rambo.

"Popcorn," Amato yelled in mock jest at the ease of his stop.

It was an appropriate food reference, although Amato probably wasn't thinking it at the time. He just wanted to remind a freshman he was a freshman. (But don't let the one scene fool you; Rambo looked impressive.)

But just as former NFL wide receiver Terrell Owens alerted fans to watch him and "Get your popcorn ready," when he joined the Dallas Cowboys, eyes will be on the impact and development of Maryland's highly-regarded rookie class. Although they're not necessarily seeking out the attention, Maryland coach John Tillman said, like T.O. would.

Rambo, widely considered one of the top freshmen in the country after a decorated career at La Salle (Pa.), along with attackmen Tim Rotanz, Connor Cannizzaro and attack/midfielder Colin Heacock are a four-pack of offensive talent that could see plenty of playing time this spring in what figures to be an even more competitive year of ACC lacrosse. Notre Dame and Syracuse join the Terps, defending national champion Duke, North Carolina and Virginia in the fray.

Rambo, Rotanz, Cannizzaro (younger brother of 2013 Tewaaraton women's finalist Kara, of North Carolina) and Heacock are among 13 true freshmen on the Terps' roster who will help replace a battle-tested group of graduated seniors, including five of six offensive starters from the lineup that bowed out to Cornell in the first round of the NCAA tournament at Byrd Stadium.

The Terps' home football and lacrosse venue stood about a parking lot away from where the team practiced outside on the turf at Maryland's football practice facility from 8-10 a.m. on Tuesday. Maryland opened practice to the media, which led to a few extra spectators standing along the sideline nearby a recruit who happened to be on campus.

Guys dealing with injuries, including senior defenseman Michael Ehrhardt (a full 14-game starter last year) and faceoff man Charlie Raffa, who wore a brace on his left knee, worked off to the side. Raffa dragged weights across the field, for example. Tillman said they hadn't practiced yet this fall, but were expected back.

Between the lines, the Terps never stopped moving for the most part. Practice was split into carefully planned segments. The time of each period was counted down on a scoreboard above the field and when the horn blew signaling the end of the allotted time, the team quickly transitioned to the next thing.

Usually, that thing involved some sort of competition. After warming up, offensive and defensive units were pitted against each other in what was labeled an explosion drill. It practiced 4-on-3s and at the end of a few rounds, the winning side watched the loser run sprints. First it was the defense, then Tillman interrupted one round because the offense hadn't scored in four straight tries, and then the defense again.

The theme continued. From there, it was full-field transition practice, and an extended period of 6-on-6s. It was quick, brisk with little time for rest. Even Team USA hopeful, Terp alum and Denver Outlaws midfielder Jeremy Sieverts participated as he prepared for an evaluation weekend with the U.S. men's national training team at the annual Play for Parkinson's fall event.

The Terps have not anointed any of the top freshmen as starters at this point and will leave that open until possibly early January, Tillman said, but they were certainly on the field as much as anyone in this particular practice.

"We didn't want to make any final decisions until we felt like it was clear to everybody here. Right now, there are a lot of guys fighting for spots, and we've appreciated that," said Tillman, who was also quick to point out the under-the-radar upperclassmen involved in those competitions, too. "That competition has really helped us. Like most freshmen, we've had some good days and some days where maybe the game was pretty fast for them, which is typical."

In one 6-on-6 set, Rambo worked from the low left wing against junior defenseman Goran Murray. The pair were certainly familiar, even though Murray, a junior, is two classes his senior. They played against each other in high school in the Philadelphia area as Murray was a Haverford School (Pa.) product. Rambo, listed at 5-foot-10 and 200 pounds, bulled his way to two goals, showing off his strength and finishing skills. (Another Philly connection: Maryland redshirt sophomore attackman Kevin Forster was a senior captain at La Salle (Pa.) the season Rambo transferred there from Abington (Pa.) for his sophomore season.)

"It's fun. It's a battle," Rambo said of going against Murray, who knows about stellar rookie campaigns as he was the 2012 ACC Freshman of the Year. "We went against each a few times in high school, but it's always fun. There's always competition with the offense and the defense. The offense is always trying to beat the defense out. We always have competitions at practice, so that's what we try to do."

Tillman said Rambo has been humble, very coacable and has shown a self-deprocating, funny personality that's allowed him to fit in well with older players on the team. And, he's got skill.

"He's definitely a really good player," senior midfielder Mike Chanenchuk, the lone returning offensive starter from last year's NCAA tournament game, said of Rambo. "He kind of has the whole skill set. He's got both hands, he's really fundamental and he's a quick player, quick with his hands. He's coming along really well."

Rambo, Rotanz and Cannizzaro saw time mostly on attack — aside from when the Terps' completely inverted for practice purposes — while the 6-foot-2, 190-pound Heacock played a lot of midfield, even short-stick defensive midfield during one stretch. It should be noted that although the freshman will get much attention this year, they weren't the only ones on the field for the Terps.

Amato, a three-time All-ACC pick, is a stalwart in net and Raffa, when healthy, is as effective as a faceoff guy there is. Leaders are emerging across the field on defense, where there are also holes to fill, notably at long-stick midfield, where Jesse Bernhardt is no longer. Junior defenseman Casey Ikeda, who started 14 games a year ago, brings experience. Senior defensive midfielder Brian Cooper, who played in 11 games last year, and sophomore defenseman Matt Dunn and junior defenseman Eric Parnon, who started one game between them last year, have provided leadership and taken on more responsibility. Tillman said that Ikeda, Ehrhardt and Murray could play long-stick midfield.

There's more uncertainty on offense.

"Graduating that class that we did, with a lot of offensive guys and really good players, there's a lot of open spots for pretty much anyone on the team," Chanenchuk said. "A lot of these freshmen have a good shot, but a lot of the sophomores and juniors do too. We're just kind of working with everybody. Right now there's no real lineup or spots, just kind of getting everybody on the same page is what we're trying to work on."

For Chanenchuk, whose career began at Princeton, he is simply happy to be on the field this fall after dealing with injuries the previous two years. The freshman Rotanz mentioned him as a helpful leader on offense.

"Getting out here and getting a head start compared to the last two years has been really helpful for me," said Chanenchuk, who scored 23 goals and had 14 assists a year ago for 37 points, second most on the team. "Being an older guy on this team, I'm just trying to push these freshmen along, push the sophomore and juniors. Just trying to lead by example. It's been good so far."

Tillman said he's been impressed with the attitude of the turtles, young and old. They are the first Maryland group in three years not be returning off a national title game appearance. The 16-8 early tournament loss to Cornell certainly stung; an "early exit," Chanenchuk said.

"The younger guys have come in very humble, and said we're going to listen to the older players and we're going to do what they ask us to do," Tillman said. "They've trusted them, and that's really helped us as a group, because everybody realizes that we're going to need every guy on this roster to compete every day, to feel like they can come out and make plays. They are important for us to have a chance to be successful."

Tillman: Year Four

This year is Tillman's fourth in College Park after replacing former coach Dave Cottle. Although there are still Cottle connections in the program -- in the form of seniors who signed National Letters of Intent when he was still coach, and assistant Ryan Moran, who was Cottle's assistant for two years -- Tillman said, "Being the fourth fall, we have a little bit better idea of what works here," when talking about fall plans.

The first three spring's have set the bar high, with three NCAA tournament berths and two national championship game appearances. Tillman is in the fourth year a seven-year contract.

We're Talking About Practice

Maryland will play in no fall events aside from holding an alumni game the weekend of Oct. 19, although several notable recent alumni will not be in attendance because that is the same weekend as a U.S. men's national training team event in Downingtown, Pa.

"We thought long and hard whether we wanted to have a scrimmage day or not," Tillman said. "One of the things that maybe we found so far is that without that big day there may be a little bit more of a sense of let's make the most of each day. You can earn more playing time or you can grow more as a player just through practice because that's really all we have."

Keeping it Real

Tillman said the team is under no delusions of grandeur, especially when compared to other teams expected to be nationally-ranked.

"We realize where we're going to be ranked and what people think of us," he said. "We realize we're going to have to work really hard. We're going to have to get a lot better. So far, not too bad, but we're thankful our first game is not until February because there's a lot more work to do for us."

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