No. 4 Maryland men’s lacrosse had its chance against No. 7 Johns Hopkins after Daniel Maltz brought his squad within one point with his fourth goal of the game.
With 54 seconds left, the Terps won the ensuing face-off. That allowed coach John Tillman to call a timeout to set up his offense with one final chance to force overtime with a share of the Big Ten regular season title and a first-round bye in the conference tournament on the line.
But Maryland couldn’t even get a shot off during its final possession as Zach Whittier’s pass sailed over Braden Erksa’s head out of bounds, crystallizing the reality of the Terps’ defeat.
The play, with a sophomore passing to a freshman, encapsulated how heavily Maryland relied on underclassmen against the Blue Jays. The Terps’ youth was on full display during the latest installment of the in-state rivalry — for better and worse.
“We looked like a team with a lot of guys playing in this game for the first time and I think some of the guys played very well,” Tillman said. “We made some uncharacteristic mistakes … but almost too many to try to get over the hump.”
Maryland’s underclassmen missed all six of their shots and turned the ball over twice in the opening quarter. The Terps were forced to play a man-down for a 30-second stretch just over midway through the frame due to a delay of game penalty called on Erksa.
The Terps’ youth continued to struggle throughout the first nine minutes of the second period, committing two turnovers.
But the team stepped up during the final six minutes of the first half. Erksa scored twice and no underclassmen committed a turnover — showing glimpses of the talent that earned the youngsters playing time down the stretch of the regular season.
Erksa also keyed the third-quarter charge from Tillman’s youngsters with a two-goal frame. He tied his own career high and the team lead with four goals, in his third career hat trick.
But in the final 15 minutes, Maryland’s freshmen and sophomores faltered.
Erksa, Whittier and sophomores Eric Spanos and Dante Trader Jr. all turned the ball over in the final quarter. Whittier’s was the most costly of the bunch, allowing the Blue Jays to run out the final 19 seconds of the outing.
“It felt like at times we played a little rushed,” Tillman said. “We kind of took the first opportunity, maybe not the best opportunity … felt like maybe we forced some things that just weren’t there.”
Tillman didn’t have to rely on young players during the 2022 season. 74 percent of his team’s scoring came from upperclassmen, including 10 of its top 12 goalscorers.
Maryland’s 2023 offense has been a little less veteran-heavy, with juniors, seniors and graduate students accounting for just 71 percent of its goals. Two of the six Terps with double-digit scores on the season — Erksa and Spanos — are underclassmen.
Tillman shied away from his younger players in Maryland’s first four outings of the season — just seven of the squad’s first 48 goals came from a freshman or sophomore. But the coach started giving them more opportunities in March, a choice he’s been rewarded for.
The Terps’ underclassmen have won outings — most notably Erksa’s overtime game-winner over Ohio State on April 7 — but have also shown their inexperience. Whittier’s late turnover Saturday is the most recent example.
How the Terps’ underclassmen perform could determine Maryland’s ceiling with the postseason next on the schedule.
“Those guys have done a really good job, given everything that’s happened. They were right there,” Tillman said. “It’s tournament time, so if you lose, you’re done. So hopefully that sense of urgency helps.”