Lacrosse is synonymous with the state of Maryland. The sport is intertwined with the state’s culture, leading kids to pick up a lacrosse stick before they ever swing a baseball bat or kick a soccer ball.
It should be no surprise that its flagship university is a powerhouse in both men’s and women’s lacrosse. The men’s team has reached 25 NCAA tournament semifinals since 1971, and the women’s team has won 14 national championships — the most for a women’s lacrosse program in NCAA history.
“It’s the state sport for a reason,” long stick midfielder Justin Sherrer said. “Everybody cares so much about it, and that’s the great thing about repping Maryland every weekend.”
Because of their track records and the region’s lacrosse culture, neither program typically has to do much searching for top-level talent — it comes to them.
But the game is expanding and talent is being found in more places. This new reality presents a recruiting opportunity for men’s coach John Tillman, which he’s embraced with open arms.
Jake, Jesse and Jared Bernhardt are three of the most successful players since 2011, the start of the Tillman era. They hail from the state of Florida, a nontraditional stop on Maryland recruiting trips, but they brought many accolades home to College Park during their time as Terps.
More recently, Tillman has discovered another southern destination in his pursuit of future stars: Atlanta.
The program has ushered in three players from in and around Atlanta in the past couple years, and another one is on the way. Lacrosse is booming in Georgia, and Maryland men’s lacrosse is paying attention.
“Atlanta has become a great place to recruit,” Tillman said. “There’s just a lot of really good players down there, and you’re seeing that on a lot of rosters at a really high level.”
Sherrer and fellow 2019 recruit Ryan Siracusa weren’t the first Maryland players to come out of Georgia — but their commitments to Tillman’s program were different from those of previous southern players.
Tillman knew he was getting pure talents who received the highest level of coaching based on the quality club and high school programs that were established in Georgia in recent years.
And after having Sherrer and Siracusa on the team, Tillman never had a second thought about signing their former club teammate Eric Malever. He was the No. 7 overall recruit in the 2020 class, according to Inside Lacrosse.
“There are some really good clubs down there, but there’s also some really good coaching going on there,” Tillman said. “You could see that in the three guys that we have.”
There are a few people Tillman and college coaches everywhere can thank for the shift that’s taken place in the area.
New York native and former Syracuse lacrosse player Liam Banks moved to Atlanta and founded the LB3 Lacrosse club in 2005, which merged with another leading Atlanta-based lacrosse club to form Thunder LB3 Lacrosse in 2017.
As he built the organization, Banks convinced great lacrosse minds such as Syracuse legend John Zulberti to join him, breaking ground on a lacrosse community in the heart of football country.
“When I got down here, the number one thing I did was I invested in coaching,” Banks said.
And Georgia natives haven’t only landed in College Park, either. All-Americans have sprung up all over the map, such as Nate and Nicky Solomon who play for Syracuse and North Carolina, respectively.
“We have a tight knit group of the lacrosse community in Georgia,” Nate Solomon said. “We all know each other. We’re all friends — whether we’re 28, whether we’re 17.”
In 2017, the merger between LB3 Lacrosse and Thunder Lacrosse, another prominent club program in Georgia, gave young players better access to top-notch coaches and greater exposure to college programs.
Banks has since left the organization, but everything he assembled remains.
Professional lacrosse player Scott Ratliff was one of the most prominent players to come out of Atlanta before the most recent wave of talent. Ratliff, now a coach for Thunder LB3, won the 2012 national championship at Loyola Maryland.
Those are the type of mentors Maryland counts on to develop and train its Georgian recruits.
“There’s a certain style for playing attack that maybe everyone doesn’t teach,” Banks said. “I think Coach Tillman is one of the guys who identified that.”
The signature style of attack Siracusa and Malever learned didn’t necessarily apply to Sherrer, a long stick midfielder. When Maryland extended an offer to the Woodstock, Georgia, native, he was like other southern players of the past: a raw talent who hadn’t received much coaching.
In Sherrer’s case, he didn’t receive as much coaching because he spent so much of his time playing football. He was actually first introduced to lacrosse by his former football coach.
“We just loved what he could do once he fully committed to lacrosse,” Tillman said.
The gamble of signing Sherrer paid off, as he’s played in all 22 games since arriving in College Park. He tallied seven groundballs and caused eight turnovers during the Terps’ run to the national title game this past season.
Siracusa and Malever took a more traditional path to elite college lacrosse. Although neither of their parents played lacrosse, both of them started playing competitively and training with coaches such as Banks and Zulberti at a young age.
They spent many weekends participating in tournaments out of state, learning what it was like to play lacrosse in its traditional hotbeds. They grew up as Georgia lacrosse grew up.
“We’d go up north, and we’d lose every game,” Siracusa said. “We just kept gaining more confidence. By the time we were seniors, we were in the championships of tournaments.”
After not seeing action during the shortened 2020 season, Siracusa made eight appearances as a reserve midfielder in 2021.
As for Malever, he dazzled in his first season as a Terp. The Atlanta native was named Big Ten Freshman of the Week three times and tallied 20 points in 16 games on Maryland’s second midfield line.
Malever was everything Tillman expected and more, proving to be a huge addition to the crop of existing players from the Atlanta area.
“You kind of look at the coaching that those guys are getting, and it’s transferred well to us,” Tillman said. “For two guys to be playing a lot and Ryan to be right on the cusp just goes to show how much this game is spreading.”
In the fall of 2019, Tillman made yet another dip into the Atlanta talent pool, getting four-star recruit Braden Erksa to commit to the 2021 class. Erksa has since reclassified as a 2022 recruit.
With the talent already moving through Tillman’s program, Erksa likely won’t be the last Georgian to trek north to College Park for lacrosse.
As Sherrer, Siracusa and Malever have gone from leaving northern club tournaments winless to gunning for national titles, they never forget where it all began.
“I’ve known them for a very long time now … and I just think it’s really cool that some Atlanta guys can rep the Maryland uniform,” Malever said.