After the 2023 season, John Tillman needed to replace Maryland men’s lacrosse’s coveted No. 1 jersey. The previous wearer, two-time All-American Brett Makar, had left the program for the Premier Lacrosse League.
It took until the fall for Tillman to decide on Makar’s successor. He brought in Ajax Zappitello for an informal talk with the coaching staff and laid out the idea of Zappitello assuming the privileged role.
“Are you sure?” Zappitello, caught off-guard, asked.
The defender knew how much the number, donned by Makar and other program greats, meant to the team.
Zappitello built trust with Terps coaches and teammates through a strong body of work on and off the field during his four seasons in College Park, which led to the honor.
“It wasn’t something I really expected, so it was a pretty cool moment for me,” Zappitello said. “It’s just awesome to have my coaches believe in me like that and trust me.”
Tillman’s trust in the Oregon native started back in his freshman year. Zappitello played in 15 of Maryland’s 16 games as a second long pole player.
The next year, Zappitello earned a starting defender spot over Owen Prybylski, a four-year starter at Villanova who’d transferred to Maryland for his graduate season. The veteran moved to the second pole role, a move Tillman said demonstrated the trust Prybylski and the other Terps had in Zappitello.
Zappitello started all 18 games and was named an All-American in 2022.
“We’re not looking for perfection, but I do think there’s a standard set there,” Tillman said. “Ajax is just going to be Ajax. He’s made of all the right stuff. Since the day he got here he’s been focused on all the right things.”
Zappitello continued his strong play in 2023. He finished the campaign tied for the team lead in caused turnovers despite missing the final four games of the year due to injury. He secured a career-high in ground balls and even scored a pair of goals en route to All-American and All-Big Ten honors.
Even though Zappitello’s number changed this season, he and his coach don’t believe much else about him will.
“He’s not going to feel added pressure to do anything different,” Tillman said. “I feel like that is just as important as the what have you done to earn it.”
The senior can look back at the blueprint that the trio of All-Americans who previously wore the jersey during his time at Maryland — Makar, Logan Wisnauskas and Jared Bernhardt. It’s nothing new.
“When the news broke out [Makar] reached out to me and his words were simple, ‘Just keep being the player and the person I know you are,’” Zappitello said. “To hear those words from him meant the world to me.”
The former four-star recruit went to high school more than 2,000 miles away from College Park and didn’t start as a freshman. But he began to grow trust with his teammates and coaches, a mutual belief that has now led him to become the Terps’ newest No. 1.
“When I was looking at schools and looking at University of Maryland, this was never in the end goal,” Zappitello said. “Fast forward four years later and I am where I’m at. It’s a pretty surreal moment for me.”