Each of the past three NCAA Division I men’s lacrosse championships have been won by two schools — Maryland and Virginia.
The programs have become powerhouses in the sport and an old rivalry has started to brew again as a result.
The Terps and the Cavaliers met annually as ACC foes before Maryland made the move to the Big Ten after the 2014 season. But the Terps’ conference move halted the meetings for a few years; there was a five-year break until the schools met again in 2019.
After one-goal losses in 2019 and 2021, Maryland got its revenge over Virginia in a big way in 2022: An 11-goal win in the regular season followed by a nine-goal victory in the NCAA quarterfinals, ending the Cavaliers’ season while continuing its own magical run en route to an undefeated national championship campaign.
Fast forward 300 days later and the No. 4 Terps and No. 1 Cavaliers are set for another battle Saturday.
“I’ll go back and watch last year’s game or two just to get re-familiarized with how last year’s game went … but a lot of times coordinators — defense or offensively — they do have philosophies, so you definitely can change things, add different wrinkles and patterns,” coach John Tillman said.
[Maryland men’s lacrosse showed improved offensive efficiency against Albany]
Both sides look different from last year’s meetings. Matt Moore — Virginia’s fourth-leading goal scorer — graduated, while four of Maryland’s top five goal scorers from last season moved on as well. But there are still key players on both sides who had major roles in the two matchups from a season ago.
For the Terps, that’s junior Owen Murphy.
The attacker shined against the Cavaliers a season ago, scoring seven goals off the bench in the meetings — including a career-high tying four scores in the quarterfinals win.
Murphy matched that four-goal mark in the season-opener against Richmond and has consistently been a threat for the Maryland offense, entering Saturday’s battle as the Terps’ third-leading goal scorer.
“We’re certainly going to try to get him some opportunities … but if they’re helping too much on him, I know [Murphy] would make that extra pass,” Tillman said. “We’d love to see him continue to be productive.”
Virginia didn’t bring back one key scorer from a season ago. Rather, there are four Cavaliers back for the 2023 version of the rivalry that scored at least three goals in the two 2022 meetings — graduate student midfielder Jeff Conner, redshirt junior attacker Connor Shellenberger, senior attacker Payton Cormier and sophomore attacker Griffin Schutz.
Those four have combined for 44 of Virginia’s 121 goals this season — 36 percent of the Cavaliers’ scores.
Unlike last season, Virginia will host this go-around, the first time the Terps will play in Charlottesville since 2013.
[Three Terps bag hat tricks as No. 4 Maryland men’s lacrosse defeats Albany, 16-9]
Charlottesville is no easy place for an opponent to secure a victory in. The Cavaliers are a perfect 12-0 at home over the past two seasons, with an average victory margin of eight goals.
“It’s funny, Jake [Bernhardt] and Jesse [Bernhardt] and I were talking about the last time we had played down there, it had been a bit,” Tillman said.
The Bernhardt brothers — now assistant coaches on Tillman’s staff — have history playing on Virginia’s home field. But for all the current Terps, that’s something new they will have to face. And it won’t be easy.
Virginia is the best team in nation in terms of scoring offense, averaging more than 20 goals a game. The Cavaliers have yet to finish below 17 goals in a game this season, including a season-high 25-goal output against Richmond in early March and 25-goal win against Harvard in February. They’re led by the second-best goal-scorer in the country in redshirt senior attacker Xander Dickson.
But what Tillman views as the key to stopping Virginia’s potent offense isn’t his defense — rather, it’s his offense.
“They’re a team that gets transitioned well, so you really need to be careful of when you lose the ball on offense, you’ve got to get back and stop transition,” Tillman said.
It’ll be difficult, but a win for the Terps would be massive — especially with their Big Ten schedule approaching, starting with a home matchup next weekend against red-hot No. 5 Penn State.