For some Maryland men’s lacrosse fans, the lasting image of the 2021 season may be the final play of Monday’s national championship.
Faceoff specialist Luke Wierman rushed the cage and launched a potential game-tying shot that was halted by Virginia goalie Alex Rode, and Maryland’s undefeated season came to a dismal end — with “1” in the loss column.
“With Luke coming down the middle, he’s shooting that shot,” senior Logan Wisnauskas said. “He’s had a couple goals this season, and stuff happens … It’s not his fault at all. You can go back and name so many other plays. We got Luke’s back, and we want Luke shooting that ball.”
Although the Terps suffered their only loss of the year on the biggest stage, 15 wins preceded it — including their third win in the Big Ten championship game and three wins in the NCAA tournament.
2021 was a historic season for a storied program.
“This group, I don’t think they’re going to be forgotten for a long time,” coach John Tillman said. “To get through our conference schedule twice and then win the tournament by beating teams three times was so hard. In those moments, we were all celebrating.”
Just as Maryland’s season will be remembered for a long time, so will Monday’s championship game. When Tillman’s squad stormed back from down five to make it 16-15 with just under four minutes left, the game became an instant classic.
Matt Moore, who led Virginia to the national title in 2019, scored to make it 17-15 and forced the Terps to fight back again.
Three minutes later, Anthony DeMaio took a pass from Kyle Long and tallied his team’s 16th goal, which set up the infamous Wierman play in the final moments. Maryland fought, but the defending champions were just too much.
“Going into the game, we knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” junior Brett Makar said. “We talked about giving counter-punches and being able to answer all week. Credit to them, when they got momentum, they took advantage of it.”
Tewaaraton Award favorite Jared Bernhardt was unusually quiet in the second half of the championship.
Bernhardt had one of the best seasons in Division I lacrosse history, but he finished Monday’s game with two goals and three assists, with one assist in the second half.
His performance Monday won’t define his career at Maryland. Donning the historic No. 1 jersey, Bernhardt returned to College Park in January after nearly nine months away from lacrosse — and he was the leader from day one.
The fifth-year senior finished the season with 71 goals and 28 assists, becoming Maryland’s all-time leader in goals and points in the process. As the only active player on the 2017 national championship team, Bernhardt wanted his teammates to experience the final weekend all year.
“I actually want the seniors and a lot of these guys that maybe haven’t been to the Final Four and championship weekend, I want them to go out like that,” Bernhardt said earlier this season.
As Tillman rehashed during his final press conference, the 2021 season was especially unique because the Big Ten played a conference-only schedule amid the pandemic.
While they didn’t endure nonconference challenges from Virginia, Notre Dame, Penn and others, the Terps were tested by playing each Big Ten team at least twice, including three games against Michigan and Johns Hopkins.
And they passed the test with flying colors.
Maryland dominated the first nine games of the season, winning those matchups by a combined 67 goals. Tillman’s squad won by double digits twice — including a 10-score win over Ohio State on April 18, when it clinched the regular season Big Ten crown.
The Terps finally faced some adversity in the regular season finale at Johns Hopkins, relying on heroics from Bernhardt and Wisnauskas in the final moments. It was Maryland’s first glimpse of what the 2021 post-season might look like.
“We needed this,” Tillman said after that game against Hopkins. “We needed to prove that if we got punched in the face and the chips were down, that we were mentally tough enough to potentially come back and do this.”
After conquering Vermont in the opening round of the NCAA tournament, Maryland required some late-game heroics once again in the quarterfinal round.
Notre Dame took the Terps to overtime on its home field, but DeMaio ended the game on a strike just 39 seconds into the extra period. If the lasting image of this season was of triumph rather than heartbreak, that would be it.
Led by Bernhardt, Maryland went on to embarrass Duke in the national semifinals before advancing to Monday’s championship, which ended a bit differently.
With all the pain they experienced at the end, the team experienced that much more joy throughout the season.
“I really would jump on a grenade for any of the guys on our team. I really mean that wholeheartedly,” Makar said. “I love each and every one of them, and they know that.”
Tillman’s teams have represented Maryland on Memorial Day six times in the last 11 years, gunning for that coveted trophy.
And no matter which plays and scenes fans choose to remember from this year, the team can look back fondly on a season that was only imperfect at the very end.
“We did our very best to represent our school, our state, our alums with pride because we do love representing them, and it means so much to us,” Tillman said. “We threw it all out there for them. We got nothing left in the tank.”