The NCAA lacrosse tournament commences this weekend. With it comes the renewal of one of the sport's great mysteries: Why hasn't Maryland won a national title in more than three decades?
The Terrapins have pedigree and location working in their favor. In a sport with several thriving programs at elite private institutions - Cornell, Duke and Johns Hopkins have all played on Memorial Day within the past three years, with Duke winning it all last spring - Maryland might not have the academic reputation of other schools atop the sport.
Still, 36 tournaments have come and gone since Maryland last hauled home the sport's most-coveted trophy in 1975.
"I just think it's really hard," first-year coach John Tillman said. "At a place like Maryland, the teams in our league are going to be in the thick of it. To get that ultimate prize, a lot has to go your way. You've got to stay healthy and play well at the end of the year. It just hasn't quite come together. Like anything else, you've got to keep grinding away."
And so the Terps try. There are already signs that Maryland won't get what it needs this season. Its top two scorers (attackman Grant Catalino and midfielder Joe Cummings) missed Saturday's loss to Colgate. That setback cost the Terps (10-4) a home game in the tournament; instead, Maryland will visit eighth-seeded North Carolina (10-5) on Sunday. The winner likely will face top-seeded Syracuse.
The title spell is not a common source of chatter in Maryland's locker room. The present concerns fixate on recapturing the quality of play that allowed the Terps to win the ACC tournament last month.
"You can talk about that all you want and you can talk about the past 35 years, but if we get it this year, it eliminates everything," defenseman Max Schmidt said. "That's what we're aiming for."
Still, the absence of a title lingers. Former coach Dick Edell made it to the title game three times from 1995 to 1998, only to fall short each time.
Edell also made three other final four appearances, including in 1987 when the Terps didn't lose in the regular season and entrenched themselves at No. 1 by midseason. That team suffered a stunning semifinal loss to Johns Hopkins.
"I re-examined it in the 10 years since [retiring], and I can't give you a plausible explanation," said Edell, the Terps' coach from 1984 to 2001. "If you said it's going to happen in the next decade, I'd say 'absolutely.' But I would have said that for the last decade, and the almost two decades I was there, I'd have said it could happen."
Maryland didn't get any closer under Dave Cottle, whose teams lost in semifinal appearances in 2003, 2005 and 2006. Cottle never got that far in his final four seasons, enduring quarterfinal losses the last three seasons before his ouster the day after the 2010 season concluded.
Yet in 86 seasons, Maryland never has finished with a losing record. It is making its 19th NCAA appearance since 1991; only Hopkins (21), Syracuse (20) and Virginia (19) have done so as frequently.
"It's one of those things where we really haven't fallen off the pedestal of being one of the top programs in lacrosse," said Ryan Moran, a Maryland assistant who played on the 2003 final four team. "We just haven't been able to ever finish at the tippy-top yet, which is kind of weird."
But it's also not something the program can fixate upon. Tillman was hired in June with a clear mandate - reach the final four and eventually win championships - and was given a seven-year deal to do so.
His first regular season was dotted with inconsistency. Maryland hammered Georgetown early, dispatched Virginia and Navy with ease and won its first ACC tournament since 2005. It also lost three straight in College Park for the first time since 1993 and hasn't won more than two in a row since mid-March.
Now comes the postseason, where the new coach doesn't intend to dwell upon the past.
"It's something we haven't been a part of," Tillman said. "We'd love to do something to make the school proud and alums really proud. We're not going to let that be one extra burden that could impact our play. That's not fair to the kids that are here."
Someday, though, any possible burden could become a boon. Brian Phipps, a goalie at Maryland from 2007 to 2010 whose father, Wilson, played for the Terps' 1975 national champions, knows the aspirations of the program remain unchanged - regardless of coach, regardless of players and regardless of the postseason outcomes throughout his lifetime to date.
"Whether it was last year or 35 years ago, that's the goal every year - for Maryland lacrosse to be the best and win a national championship," said Brian Phipps, now Maryland's director of lacrosse operations. "Everybody comes to Maryland to win it, and the team that does is going to be a very special team and go down in history for a while. Hopefully, it will be this team."
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