NCAA men’s lacrosse undefeated seasons: Maryland trying to join roster

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Maintaining a perfect season has never been the pressing issue for Maryland’s men’s lacrosse team, nor a topic of conversation heading into Sunday’s NCAA quarterfinal in Columbus, Ohio.

Instead, it’s just a matter of maintaining a remarkable level of consistency and facing a familiar opponent in Virginia (12-3), which spoiled the Terrapins’ chance to earn an unbeaten season with a triumph. 17-16 in the 2021 National Championship game.

“I think it comes down to what we’ve been preaching and saying all year,” defender Brett Makar said. “It’s definitely a big statement and saying in our locker room, ‘You’re only as good as your last shift. What have you done for me lately? What can you do for me next? ”

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Yet, from a broader perspective, Maryland (15-0) is close on a rare achievement. Only three times in the past 30 years have the Division I champion gone undefeated, and none have done so since 2006.

Each of these teams – 1997 Princeton, 2005 Johns Hopkins and 2006 Virginia – followed their own path to perfection. Of these, only the Tigers of a quarter century ago had just won a national title the previous year.

Yet the start of the 1997 season did not hint at dominance. Princeton started with one-goal victories over Johns Hopkins, Virginia and North Carolina, and it earned an 8-5 triumph over Brown in its sixth game.

“There was no thought at that time of going undefeated,” said coach Bill Tierney, now Denver’s coach. “It was just survival in those early games. That tenacity at the start probably made us quite hardened. When you win those games by one goal, people on the outside may consider it fate or you’re the best team. You watch all these one-goal games, and as a manager you probably see it as ‘We were lucky’.”

These Tigers were also exceptionally good. The centerpieces of the Princeton dynasty were forwards Jon Hess, Jesse Hubbard and Chris Massey. All three were juniors in 1997 and helped the Tigers through the second half of the regular season.

Tierney implemented a “19 goal rule” around this time, instructing his players to pass the ball and not shoot to avoid dropping 20 on an opponent. This was not an uncommon development; Princeton scored 19 goals in four consecutive games at the end of the 1997 season.

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But then came a tough first quarter in an eventual quarterfinal loss to Massachusetts and a two-goal fourth-quarter deficit before the Tigers knocked out Duke in the semifinals. Memorial Day was soggy that year, and the title game was played around 11 a.m. Tierney distinctly remembers sitting down to an early breakfast at the College Park Holiday Inn before his team faced Maryland.

“We know it’s going to be a tough game, and I remember one of our players standing up and saying, ‘We haven’t played our best game yet,'” Tierney said. said, “Maybe it’s true, and maybe we’re delusional. It kind of gave [us] a whole new season that day. And then, of course, we go out and score eight goals in the first quarter.

While Princeton’s 19-7 rout was a disappointing end to a golden run, Johns Hopkins had its own finish in 2005: a one-goal loss to Duke on the final day of the season. That was in many ways all that mattered to these Blue Jays.

Hopkins lost to Virginia in the 2003 title match and was crushed in the 2004 semifinals by eventual champion Syracuse. Weeks after that latest loss, midfielder Kyle Harrison emailed his teammates outlining how much work he intended to put in for his final year and how he expected the same from everyone. others.

Coach Dave Pietramala recalled how difficult it was to keep his team engaged in the fall.

“Honestly, we weren’t interested in the regular season either,” said Pietramala, whose team played three one-goal games before the tournament. “We wanted to do one thing, and that was get back to the Final Four, and we weren’t going to be satisfied until we got back to the Final Four and fixed the bad of the semi-final and the bad of the final. ”

The most memorable game of the season was not Duke’s Memorial Day loss, but the 9-8 overtime triumph over Virginia two days earlier. A lightning delay halted play with less than five minutes remaining, just after Virginia took its first lead of the day, and both teams returned to their locker rooms.

“We walked in and [captain] Greg Raymond puts on the Village People, and they dance to ‘Macho Man’ or ‘YMCA’ or something, and I’m like, ‘What’s going on here?’ said Pietramala, now defensive coordinator at Syracuse. “But to be honest, maybe the best thing we did as a coach was to let them be what they were at that time.”

It was one of many times in 2005 when Pietramala trusted his older players to handle things, and the Blue Jays then forced overtime on a goal with 1.4 seconds left before advancing with a score in overtime. As vital as that game was to the final stages of Hopkins’ perfect run, it also planted the seeds for what was to come to Virginia the following spring.

By the time the Cavaliers’ bus arrived late at night at the since-demolished college hall, some of their strong personalities were already shaping how the 2006 season unfolded.

“A few of the older guys wouldn’t let anyone off the bus until they had their say, which was basically saying, ‘Nothing like this will ever happen again,'” said the coach at the time, Dom Starsia, who won four NCAAs. titles in Virginia. “Obviously you don’t expect next season to be an unbeaten domestic championship, but this team had a real sense of goal from the start.”

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Now retired as a college coach, Starsia often speaks to teams about the importance of internal leadership while pursuing a championship. Sometimes all it takes is one; he name-checks Tucker Radebaugh (1999), Chris Rotelli (2003), and Bray Malphrus (2011) from his other titles.

But the list in 2006 was longer: Matt Ward, JJ Morrissey, Michael Culver and many more.

“They were smart and social, but the overriding theme for this team was, ‘Nothing stands in the way of lacrosse,'” Starsia said. “They clamped down on anyone who got close to the edge and was going to harm what we were trying to do. It couldn’t have come from me.

Again, there was no real reason to worry about a trip. Aside from a 7-6 win at Princeton in mid-March, the Cavaliers have won the rest of their games by at least four goals. That included a 15-7 rout of Massachusetts in what looked more like a crowning glory than a national title game.

“I sometimes joke with people that my job in 2006 was to get them out there on time because they just weren’t going to be distracted by anything,” Starsia said. “In general, this group was not going to be denied. I don’t think it was because they were obsessed with being undefeated. It’s just that they were obsessed with, “This is who we are. Nobody plays with us. ”

It’s this Virginia team that most closely resembles what Maryland has done so far. These Terps have a burning memory of last year’s disappointment and dispatched most of their opponents ruthlessly and professionally, hitting a high in almost every game, including a 23-12 demolition of the Cavaliers on March 19. at Audi Field.

“That’s the goal, right? Every week, be the best version of yourself and hope to perform at a high level, especially with the teams we play against,” Maryland coach John Tillman said. “I don’t think it’s easy because you know inevitably there will be games that you don’t play as well.”

Just not much happened. The Terps lead their opponents with an average of 9.3 goals. They have trailed in just three of their 15 games. Only two opponents, Notre Dame and Ohio State, gave them the slightest scare.

But perfection was never the point for Maryland this spring, just as it wasn’t for other undefeated teams of the past 25 years. Instead, it’s the hunt to be called champion, something Maryland can take another step into Sunday.

“Everyone came back with a purpose and a mission,” Makar said. “There was no lap of honor or just that extra year to have another year of college before entering the real world. It was with a purpose and an intention to get back to where we were. last year. We’re doing everything we can to get back to that point.”

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