The whistle blew, and Maryland men’s lacrosse was on the front foot — faceoff specialist Conor Calderone raked the ball into midfielder Roman Puglise’s path to create a transition opportunity.
Less than four minutes later, the ball was back on the X because Villanova capitalized on a stretched Terps backline to score. That time, too, the result was the same, with Calderone crawling through the faceoff circle before flicking the ball toward midfielder Joshua Coffman.
And after the Wildcats’ lead swelled to three midway through the first, Calderone swept the ball away from his opposite, Justin Coppola, to claim yet another faceoff win.
Scoring chances failed to materialize for Maryland on Tuesday, a languid offensive performance resulting in a 13-12 defeat. But Calderone’s aggression at the X was a constant — he used every part of his 5-foot-6, 165-pound frame to outmuscle Coppola and fellow Villanova faceoff man Dan Fisher.
It was a confident display from the youngster, one that helped restore faith after not featuring much in the Terps’ opening three games. Now, Calderone is firmly entrenched as a go-to option in the lineup, capable of making a difference at the X — even when his team struggles to produce much from those faceoff victories.
“To be in that moment and have some success is good for his confidence,” coach John Tillman said. “We’re excited about him being able to continue to build off of that.”
The faceoff role was a bogey at times for Maryland last campaign, especially toward the back end of the season — Tillman’s squad went 18-for-59 from the X in the NCAA tournament. And with leading specialist Austin Henningsen graduating, the Terps needed to revitalize at the position.
On that end, Calderone has all the credentials of a player poised to make the faceoff spot his own. At Smithtown West in Smithtown, New York, Calderone was a two-time All-American, finishing his senior year with a 93 percent win rate at the X.
A five-star ranking followed, and Calderone’s commitment — coupled with Joel Trucksess’ transfer from Lehigh and Justin Shockey’s rapid development in the offseason — spelled a return to form for a faceoff unit that has typically ranked among the country’s best during Tillman’s reign.
“If one guy isn’t doing so hot, we can throw in another guy and be confident with him,” midfielder Russell Masci said.
With such a talented crop of faceoff options, though, Tillman and assistant coach Tyler Barbarich were faced with a dilemma — give Calderone heavy minutes from the start, or opt for more experienced heads?
And through the first three games of the season, Tillman and Barbarich sided with their upperclassmen. Shockey combined for 66 faceoffs, while Trucksess got the majority of faceoffs when Maryland took on Richmond.
Calderone, despite impressing in the preseason, was relegated to a bench role, coming on sparingly against the Panthers and Spiders while failing to make an appearance against the Quakers.
Still, the newcomer stuck to Tillman and Barbarich’s remit, learning from Shockey, Trucksess and fellow freshman Luke Wierman in the X during practices, picking up little details while standing on the sideline. It’s there he earned the trust of teammates and coaches alike, Puglise said.
“I don’t think anything is ever guaranteed to anyone that made the decision to commit here and be a Terp,” Puglise said. “But if you can sacrifice for the people around you and can dedicate yourself to getting a little bit better every single day, it benefits the whole team and eventually your time is going to come.”
Calderone’s chance materialized on that rainy Tuesday afternoon in Villanova. While the Terps suffered from various shortcomings across the field, Calderone wasn’t one of them. He went 17-for-29 from the X and notched four ground balls — the second-highest total on the team.
“Ty Barbarich … felt like, matchup-wise, this was a pretty good matchup for him,” Tillman said. “I felt like he won a lot of the clamps. … At times, we didn’t turn those into offensive possessions in our end.”
While Maryland didn’t claim victory Tuesday, Calderone’s progression has been apparent. And with his coaches and teammates increasingly bolstered by Calderone’s effort, Tillman’s squad will be hoping for more performances like Tuesday’s from the freshman. Despite the Terps’ wobbles, Calderone stood tall, even when he was scrounging on the turf to pick up yet another faceoff win.
“Some things to work on,” Tillman said. “But for me, some glimpses of what he can do for us down the road.”