As the final seconds ticked down in the 2017 NCAA national championship game, Maryland men's lacrosse head coach John Tillman could not help but think about the generations of alumni that have been so supportive and waited so patiently for that elusive title.
When a 9-6 victory against Big Ten rival Ohio State was finally secured May 29 at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., Tillman was drenched with the obligatory Gatorade bath, while several of his players were reduced to tears. After 41 years of frustration, the Terps were atop the college lacrosse world again.
Tillman will no longer have to answer questions about the championship drought. Now, the focus will be on defending the crown. Since winning the championship in 1975, the Terps had lost in the title game nine times, including a heartbreaking overtime defeat to North Carolina in 2016.
In winning the national title, the Maryland men joined the Maryland women as 2017 national champions. The undefeated Terps women's team beat Boston College, 16-13, in their championship game.
Tillman explained how his team had dealt with the long stretch between titles and the tough losses.
"When guys lose games or things don't go well or we make mistakes, we talk about those being teachable moments," Tillman said. "... We kind of look at the scars as opportunities to learn, but also we're proud of our scars sometimes. And we reflect back on if you have a scar, something good didn't happen, you don't forget it. You learn from it, and hopefully that's something you can grow from. We don't run away from that."
Maryland (16-3) entered this year's NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 overall seed. The Terps were pushed during a 13-10 victory against Bryant in the first round, but dominated Albany, 18-9, in the quarterfinals to set up a marquee matchup against Denver for a spot in the national championship game. The Pioneers lived up to their tough reputation, but the Terps advanced with a hard-fought 9-8 victory.
Maryland senior defenseman Tim Muller said the adversity of the past couple years had his teammates battle-tested for the rigors of this year's NCAA Tournament.
"We're a close group," said Muller, who was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player. "We do everything with each other. I don't know if there's a weekend that we're not spending time with each other, and tons in the locker room. So that's what we want to do here. We want to build unity.
"Obviously, the past year has been rough, but we knew as seniors that we had to come together this year and bring it together for us to get this national championship. I think it just speaks about the rest of these guys and just the type of players that we are at Maryland."
The title game against the Buckeyes was not any easier. The teams split their meetings in the regular season, and Ohio State was playing its best lacrosse heading into the final. The Buckeyes overcame a 7-3 halftime deficit to beat Towson in the semifinals.
In the national championship game, Ohio State attackman Austin Shanks scored the game's opening goal with 11:02 remaining in the first quarter. It was the first time the Terps trailed during the 2017 NCAA Tournament.
There were immediate questions about how Maryland would respond.
Junior attackman Tim Rotanz settled the anxiety when he tied the game five minutes later. From there, midfielder Connor Kelly gave Maryland its first lead, 3-2, with 59 seconds remaining in the first quarter, and the Terps never trailed again, putting together another complete performance.
Maryland held Ohio State (16-4) to 25 shots. When the Buckeyes managed to get an open look on goal, junior Dan Morris stepped up and made 11 saves.
"They've had an incredible year," Ohio State head coach Nick Myers said of Maryland. "And Coach Tillman and his staff, I think our men would say they certainly brought out the best in us. They've got a great group of men, and I know that they've been here a couple times, and just, again, genuinely happy for them and their achievement."
Maryland senior attackman Colin Heacock remembers looking up in the stands and seeing dozens of former players who had made the trip to support the Terps. There was a sense of pride -- and responsibility -- not to let them down.
"We saw a lot of alums," Heacock said. "Coming in here as freshmen, a lot of those older guys helped us and made us comfortable. So kind of what they started. It felt great just to finish it and share that moment with them and just for all the fans out there."
After the championship, senior attackman Matt Rambo became Maryland's first male recipient of the Tewaaraton Award, college lacrosse's equivalent to football's Heisman Trophy. He is part of a talented group of players Tillman must replace next season.
The Terps will lose their entire attack to graduation. Maryland also loses Muller and short-stick defensive midfielder Isaiah Davis-Allen, who was a first-team All-American this season.
Despite those departures, Maryland should still be a dangerous team with Kelly, Rotanz and Jared Bernhardt back in the midfield. Tillman is also adding four Under Armour High School All-Americans who could make an immediate impact.
Duke was the last team to repeat as national champions in 2013-2014.
Tillman will begin putting together the pieces for a repeat in the fall. However, he has already etched his name as one of the greatest coaches in the history of Maryland lacrosse. The magnitude of that accomplishment is not lost on him.
"This program means so much, and you are motivated to work hard because you know when you win it makes some people happy," Tillman said. "Obviously, when you win a championship, no one has to talk about it anymore. I kind of always felt like we were relevant.
"We were getting there. We were close. It's not like we haven't been there. I understand you're defined sometimes by championships, but it's not like we weren't in the category. We've been at championship weekend, which means a lot. Certainly, you want to get it done. But for them not to have to worry about that here, I think it means a lot to a lot of people. Less to our kids because we've kind of focused on just not dealing with it."
Issue 234: June 2017