BALTIMORE — Maryland’s lacrosse program left behind a memento from its most recent trip to M&T Bank Stadium. After defeating Johns Hopkins in April 2010, the Terrapins sneaked a bright, red Maryland sign above the ceiling tiles of their locker room and promised to reclaim it when they came back for the final four.
Except Maryland got a coaching change instead of a place on the season’s final weekend. Surely, the Terps figured, the sign would be gone once they returned this past weekend. They were wrong; midfielder David Miller retrieved the banner before Friday’s practice.
“We didn’t get here last year, but we did get back here,” midfielder Dan Burns said.
The sign - certain to make a re-appearance in the locker room as Maryland (13-4) meets Virginia (12-5) in the NCAA title game Monday - is one of many links between the immediate past and the present under new coach John Tillman that has spurred the Terps within a victory of their first national title since 1975.
Tillman, a former Navy assistant who took over for the ousted Dave Cottle last June, found himself in a potentially awkward situation with his first Maryland team. The Terps have 17 seniors, a blessing for those who place a premium on experience. Yet it also meant Tillman inherited a team more likely to respond negatively to a wholesale shake-up.
So Tillman opted for a more moderate approach, changing terminology and implementing a defensive scheme based more on team containment rather than individual matchups. But he chose not turn everything upside down.
“I think that balancing act of not frustrating the seniors to the point where they didn’t want to play for you and putting in his two cents have really worked out,” fifth-year senior Brian Farrell said.
All along, Tillman insisted Maryland’s history - its national titles, All-Americans, ACC championships and extended tradition - was one of its greatest strengths. So when the Terps stumbled into the NCAA tournament with a loss to Colgate, he turned to the two men who last sat at his desk.
In Dick Edell, who retired after 18 seasons at Maryland in 2001, he could rely upon the counsel of a Hall of Famer widely considered one of the game’s great ambassadors. And in Cottle, Tillman found a man who knew the personalities of his team better than he did.
Edell reaffirmed Tillman’s decision to provide moderation. The two have talked throughout the postseason, with Edell observing Tillman’s team has the same general characteristics of a typical Maryland outfit.
“If I came in and brought everything I wanted to do to the program, it’d be like coaching 48 freshmen,” Edell said. “There’s 17 kids that have been around Maryland lacrosse three times longer than he has. I think, certainly in my 18 years and Dave’s nine, it was a given that we would always play good defense. That hasn’t changed.”
The outreach to Cottle might be even more crucial. Tillman and Cottle talked for two hours the night Maryland learned it was unseeded in the tournament and would open the postseason at North Carolina. Out of that came an invitation for Cottle to speak to the team for the first time since departing Maryland after a quarterfinal loss last spring.
While Tillman was exhausted after a draining regular season, Cottle was frustrated with the attitudes he saw from his former players. He told them as much during a session three days before the Terps opened the postseason.
“They lost to four teams they were better than,” said Cottle, who attended Saturday’s 9-4 defeat of Duke and plans to be in the crowd Monday. “Let’s call a spade a spade. They were favored in every single one of the games they lost.”
It was perhaps the final step in straightening out the Terps. Burns said the team was revitalized with the start of the postseason and the reality check of the Colgate loss. Tillman, armed with the insight of two men who understood his position all too well, permanently connected with his team. And Maryland soon began a run to move within a victory of its elusive national title.