Maryland men’s lacrosse trailed Army by one goal with less than 30 seconds left in the schools’ NCAA tournament first-round battle.
The Terps, who had trailed by five after the first quarter, clawed their way back into the game and held possession with one final chance to force overtime.
As had been the case all season long, their inexperience determined the result.
Braden Erksa — a freshman attacker who became coach John TIllman’s key offensive piece over the second half of the season — missed a look high. Jack Koras — a junior midfielder who had never started an outing prior to this season — sailed another shot wide.
Army scooped up the ensuing ground ball, dashing any of the Terps’ remaining hope. Maryland was forced to watch their opposition storm the field at SECU Stadium and advance to the next round, while the Terps’ season ended in heartbreaking fashion.
“A night like tonight when the journey is over … and the time we’ve had together and knowing that’s over, it’s tough,” Tillman said following the Terps’ NCAA tournament defeat on May 13.
Tillman led his veteran-heavy group — each of Maryland’s top-four point-scorers were graduate students or fifth-years — to a national championship in 2022, but his young 2023 unit didn’t have the same spark, which doomed the Terps over the course of the season.
Maryland’s starting lineup in its season opener against Richmond featured three Terps on the offensive side of the ball receiving the first starts of their collegiate careers. While the Terps shined en route to one of their best all-around showings of the season, things quickly went downhill the following week with a five-goal loss to Loyola in Maryland’s second-worst offensive performance this year.
The Terps’ weekly inconsistencies continued throughout their 2023 campaign. Maryland never strung together more than three consecutive wins. It only put together stretches of games with offensive efficiency (goals per possessions) above 30 percent twice.
“A lot of ups and downs … you saw a lot of guys grow up really, really fast this year,” graduate student defender Brett Makar said. The way this group battled and handled adversity really, really was impressive and I know it pushed me to be a better player and leader.”
A pair of freshmen in Erksa and goalie Brian Ruppel stood out with their play over the home stretch of the regular season, willing the Terps to imperative wins at times. But the two showed their youth in the biggest moments of the season.
Both Erksa and Ruppel entered the program as four-star prospects in the class of 2022, not making an impact until a few weeks into the campaign.
Erksa took over as a full-time starter against Syracuse on Feb. 16 but didn’t break out until a few weeks later against Albany, when he scored a career-high four goals. He finished the final 11 outings of the season with 24 goals and 15 assists, leading Maryland in both categories over that stretch.
But against Michigan in the Big Ten tournament final, Erska converted on just two of his six looks and failed to register an assist. In the fourth quarter against Army, he missed two of his three shots.
“I feel like week after week Braden was getting a lot of number ones, and he never backed down,” Tillman said. “He’s got a super bright future.”
Ruppel received his first look at goalkeeper for Maryland in the fourth game of the season against Princeton following an early-season injury to senior Logan McNaney and poor play from Binghamton transfer Teddy Dolan. Ruppel shined from the start with a .737 save percentage against the Tigers, a performance that cemented him as Maryland’s full-time starter in the cage for the rest of the 2023 campaign.
However, he faltered in the Terps’ final two games of the year — Maryland’s Big Ten tournament finale against Michigan and NCAA tournament first-round matchup against Army — finishing with the two worst save percentages of his career.
“We don’t get here without [Ruppel],” Tillman said after Maryland’s loss to Army in the NCAA tournament. “You’ve got a guy that’s MVP of the Final Four and arguably one of the best goalies in the country … we never asked him to be Logan [McNaney], we just needed his best. Given everything, I thought Brian did a really good job this year.”
The Terps’ 2023 season went as far as their youth could take them, headlined by Erksa and Ruppel. When they were at their best, they could compete with any team in the nation, exemplified by a thrilling 14-13 overtime win over then-No. 1 Virginia in March. But when they struggled, the results were bad losses.
Down the stretch of the campaign, Maryland’s lack of experience resulted in a 10-6 record and the program’s worst season since 2009.