ANNAPOLIS – Maryland opened its season with plenty of experience and even greater expectations.
Oddly, the Terrapins didn’t grow up until April, spurred on eventually only because of a collapse against North Carolina.
Perhaps it’s a case of better late than never.
Maryland (8-2) was never left for dead, even after blowing a four-goal lead two weeks ago. But then came an emphatic rout of Virginia and a 10-4 leveling of Navy on Friday.
Boom. Boom. Two road wins prompted by one big growth spurt.
“Some of the greatest kids on our team, when we met after Carolina, they were like ‘We just kind of thought it would happen,’” coach John Tillman said.
Except it didn’t. Not automatically, anyway.
The tension has eased to some degree in College Park. The Terps will head to the NCAA tournament for the 10th straight year and will probably look like a contender in a wide-open year. The circuitous route to get there won’t matter so much as the length of the stay in May.
Nights like Friday hint it could be a while before Maryland turns in its equipment for the year.
The Terps jumped on Navy, leading 6-1 after a quarter and never facing a serious threat. When the Midshipmen (4-7) scored their lone goal of the second quarter, Maryland replied in kind off the next faceoff. Navy twice went more than 18 minutes without a goal.
All along, the ugliness against Carolina – a 4-0 lead turning into an 11-6 loss – remained very much in mind.
“It’s one of those ‘Happen to you once, shame on you; happen to you twice, shame on me,’” attackman Owen Blye said. “You’ve got to learn from it and move on and allow yourself to benefit from it in the future.”
And so Maryland has. Its profile was heavy on victories but light on substance when it fell to 6-2 after falling to Carolina. Tillman, a first-year coach, faced a crossroads with how to prod his veteran group into turning the corner and becoming a team capable of navigating its way to Memorial Day weekend.
Friday’s score didn’t so much suggest he was successful in providing that push so much as the method. For a quarter, Maryland out-Navied Navy – looking like a bigger, more talented version of the Mids before things turned into the usual slog witnessed when the two teams meet.
“There were a lot of guys that had to look themselves in the mirror,” Tillman said. “I’ve told a number of guys this: There’s no handbook on how to deal with expectations for a season, and these guys, not a lot was expected of them the last three or four years. Then with so many experienced guys coming back, everyone was telling them … it was either family members, friends, alums, media ‘You’re gonna be great, you’re gonna be great, you’re gonna be great.’”
A victory over a sub-.500 team doesn’t change just how Maryland must play. But between Blye’s emergence, Grant Catalino’s improved efficiency within the offense, goalie Niko Amato’s progression and Brian Farrell’s usual boost in transition, the Terps have found more and more solutions in recent weeks.
Tillman warrants some credit, too. It’s tempting for a coach – particularly a new one – to mix things up as much as possible. As the Terps hit a low point, Tillman understood a less-is-more approach (at least conceptually) was the wise play.
“We aren’t doing a ton different, but I think we are doing what we’re doing better,” Tillman said. “As a staff, we’re actually doing things a little more simply, and I think that’s helped them, too. We took some of the thinking out of it.”
Two wins have followed. It doesn’t mean the Terps will find their way to the final four for the first time since 2006, or a Memorial Day date for the first time since 1998. Certainly, the ever-elusive title – a 35-year drought and counting for Maryland – isn’t guaranteed.
Yet the spring’s first obstacle is cleared. Maryland’s experience and expectations remain great. Its quality of play is finally starting to come close to reflecting both.
“Everything that happens throughout the season has to be taken as a learning lesson, whether it’s positive or negative,” Blye said. “A lot of times, you can learn more from negative things that happen to you throughout the year. You have to look at it that way. So obviously we were disappointed with what happened in the Carolina game; nobody ever wants to go up up four goals and lose the game. After it happens, you have to use it as a learning experience and not let it happen to you again.”