Of all the facets of Maryland's lacrosse tradition, first-year coach John Tillman prioritized reconnecting with the program's penchant for producing tough, rugged, self-made players above nearly anything else.
Of all the players he inherited, few embody those traits quite like Dan Burns, whose unseeded Terrapins (11-4) will meet top-seeded Syracuse (15-1) in the NCAA tournament quarterfinals Sunday in Foxborough, Mass.
The fifth-year senior arrived as a small, fast midfielder intent on impressing coaches through his conditioning work during a redshirt year. And he did, developing into one of Maryland's most valuable players in the latter half of his career. Despite an atypical career arc, he's the precise sort of player Tillman covets.
"He's one of those guys in this day and age with the Internet and access to information, he's still a little bit of a throwback," Tillman said. "He doesn't really know a lot of players on the other teams. He's not really into that, but he's a competitive guy."
Burns' return from a preseason back injury midway through the season proved crucial. He missed the first seven games, chafing at the lost time even though the possibility of even practicing was unlikely nearly the entire time.
His absence left the Terps inexperienced at short stick defensive midfield, perhaps the most unheralded position on the field. And it also came during a stretch that saw Maryland occasionally coast through games, which eventually proved costly.
Burns made his season debut in a limited capacity in an 11-6 loss to North Carolina on March 26. The result was sobering, and Burns' return was empowering for a player cautious to be critical when he couldn't be on the field.
"Any time you're a captain or a leader on a team, it's easier to lead by example," Burns said. "It's also easier to help guys out and criticize each other when you're out there doing the sprints with everybody, sweating and falling on the ground. When you're on the sideline, guys will still listen, but from my standpoint I don't feel as comfortable telling people what to do unless I'm out there doing it with them."
He wasn't at full strength initially, managing only a half-hour of practice before his first game. But eventually he regained his speed, which always made him a dangerous element in transition as a complement to long pole Brian Farrell.
It also helped settle Maryland by injecting a player with a history of thriving in tough matchups into the defensive midfield and faceoff wings.
"Once he gets going, there's not a better D-middie in the country," Farrell said. "That helps out so many aspects of our game. You know if you put him on their second-best or even best dodgers, he's going to do a good job."
He's thrived all over the field at Maryland. Burns was used as a two-way midfielder a year ago, starting nine games on offense and collecting seven points. The Terps' starting defensive midfielders graduated to leave a hole - one Burns happily filled once he was back from his early season injury, even if the statistical rewards (17 groundballs, six caused turnovers) aren't as easy to recognize.
"I kind of thought I would go to a more defensive role just to get some consistency back there," Burns said. "We have a lot of offensive guys who are really emerging and doing a good job this year. I'm fine with it. I love playing defense."
Particularly if it can get him to Memorial Day weekend for the first time. Maryland hasn't reached the final four since 2006, and Burns will be crucial if Maryland is to contain a capable Orange offense - both with his work and his words.
"He does pride himself on working hard, and he sends that message over and over again to the guys," Tillman said. "'Hey, let's make sure we pick up groundballs, let's make sure we get back on defense.' He echoes a lot of things we say."
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