WASHINGTON (CBSDC) – It will be a clash of the titans tomorrow when No. 1 Duke visits No. 2 Maryland for quite possibly the final time.
No, it’s not men’s basketball since the Terps haven’t been ranked and the Blue Devils aren’t coming to College Park. And it’s not women’s hoops either since those highly-ranked squads met 11 days ago in Durham and won’t play again unless it’s in a postseason tournament.
The showdown comes in men’s lacrosse, a sport in which Maryland and Duke have been facing off against each other since 1940, well before the birth of the ACC, the league which the Terps are leaving this summer.
“The game’s a big deal,” said Maryland star senior goalie Niko Amato. “Seeing that coming to an end is kind of bittersweet. It’s weird that this could be the last time we play them.”
The Terps’ 16-7 spanking of the eventual national champion Blue Devils last Mar. 2 in Durham and the fact that the teams are now ranked 1-2 makes it even bigger even if it’s just the fourth of Maryland’s 12 regular season contests.
“It’s nice to be on top, but that’s not who we are,” said junior midfielder Joe LoCascio. “We’re a bunch of grinders.”
Duke moved up to No. 1 this week thanks to Maryland’s stunning 16-8 rout of previously top-ranked Syracuse – which lost last year’s NCAA Championship game to the Blue Devils — on the road last Saturday.
“It was just one of those days,” said Terps coach John Tillman, noting the dominance of faceoff specialist Charlie Raffa and some penalties on the Orange helped launch Maryland to an unexpected 12-5 halftime lead. “The momentum kept building and it just snowballed. They got frustrated, pressed a little harder and our strength got magnified. We could play Syracuse 100 times and that score wouldn’t happen again.”
Tillman and his veteran leaders have been telling Maryland’s younger players not to take the smackdown of Syracuse too much to heart.
“When everybody outside of our program is telling you how great you are, that can be difficult,” Tillman said as hip-hop music blared from the adjacent room where his players were lifting weights after Wednesday’s frosty late afternoon practice. “We’ve had to be tough on ‘em all week to remind them that game is over and that Duke is the defending national champions and they’re No. 1 and we’re not.”
Last April 13, Tillman’s team was No. 1 before losing 7-4 to previously struggling Johns Hopkins at Byrd Stadium. Virginia whipped Maryland 13-6 in the ACC Tournament semifinals 13 days later. The Terps’ season then ended with a 16-8 loss to visiting Cornell in an NCAA first-round game. After reaching the Final Four during each of Tillman’s first two seasons, that ugly finish to 2013 still lingers.
“It sticks with some of the guys,” Amato acknowledged.
“Moving forward, we’ll know how to handle success better,” added senior long pole Mike Erhardt, one of Amato’s co-captains.
Four of last season’s top five scorers graduated, leaving only senior midfielder Mike Chanenchuk, whose 11 points are one behind freshman attackman Matt Rambo’s team-high total.
“We’ve got a very unselfish group on the offensive end, guys that are willing to share the ball and make the extra pass,” Tillman said. “We have a lot of interchangeable parts so we’re a little more unpredictable. You can’t take away one or two guys. Last year, if you shut down our knowns, that really hurt us. Defensively, we have enough experience to build around, but we’re still making too many mistakes. Niko has bailed us out a bunch, but that’s harder to do against better shooters so we’ve got to do a better job in front of him.”
Tillman said that despite the conquest of Syracuse, he’s not sure whether his team, which starts as many freshmen (two) as seniors, will measure up to its predecessors.
“There’s potential to have a really good year, but right now, we have so much to work on that I’m hesitant to say what we can and can’t do,” said Tillman, who noted that the 2011 and 2012 national runnersup were as inconsistent as last year’s squad but peaked at the right time.
Playing Syracuse and Duke back-to-back means Maryland has to be clicking on all cylinders again tomorrow, but with No. 3 North Carolina, No. 4 Virginia, No. 7 Johns Hopkins and No. 11 Notre Dame still ahead, the Terps can’t afford to peak now. And this year, the Final Four is in Baltimore, their backyard. Maryland hasn’t won the title since 1975, but there’s a “why not us?” feeling these days in College Park.
“The sky’s the limit for this team,” Amato said. “Winning the championship is a little bit about luck and it’s about playing your best lacrosse towards the end of the season.”
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last four Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.
Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin.