Ajax Zappitello locked eyes with Syracuse attacker Joey Spallina. Maryland men’s lacrosse had left its best defender on an island with the nation’s points leader.

As the shot clock dwindled, Spallina charged. He wanted space to fire a clean shot, but Zappitello didn’t budge. He stood his ground and knew exactly where he wanted to force Spallina.

Zappitello saw the Syracuse star’s stick hanging away from his body and made his move. He forced Spallina to the ground, jarring the ball free in the process.

Zappitello dominated his matchup against Spallina. He’s done so in every game this season. The senior’s rise to stardom almost always has him facing the opposition’s best attacker — a testament to his skill and weekly preparation.

“Ajax is pretty good at studying his film and kind of anticipating some of the dodges, the things that they’ll utilize,” coach John Tillman said. “There’s a level of maturity I think that he does have and an emotional intelligence that is huge for us.”

[A rule violation gave Maryland men’s lacrosse a second chance. It capitalized.]

Zappitello’s preparation includes regular meetings with Jesse Bernhardt, Maryland’s defensive coordinator. Bernhardt starred as a long-stick midfielder for the Terps from 2010-13, earning All-American honors and an ACC Co-Defensive Player of the Year accolade.

Bernhardt and Zappitello review the Terps’ overall defensive game plan and the defender’s specific matchup for each game. So far this season, that list includes Syracuse’s Spallina, Richmond’s Dalton Young and Loyola’s Evan James.

Spallina, last year’s ACC Freshman of the Year, scored just one goal. He’s had at least three in every other game this year. Young, the 2023 Atlantic 10 Offensive Player of the Year, only scored twice. James, a week after notching five goals, had none against the Terps.

Zappitello, a 2023 All-Big Ten First Team defender, said he likes to sit with Bernhardt once a week to go through his individual matchup, bounce off ideas and get a second opinion. They prepare for specific in-game situations, such as how Zappitello should react if the player he’s matched up with drives right.

[George Stamos’ overtime goal lifts Maryland men’s lacrosse to 13-12 win over Syracuse]

Zappitello also credited the scout team for giving Maryland’s players useful examples of what they may face on gameday. The scout teamers mimic the upcoming opponent’s tendencies and sets, he said.

Zappitello’s preparations include daily film study. He switches between the Terps’ practices and the opponents’ past games. That’s in addition to daily team film study.

Tillman tells Zappitello to not necessarily worry about always sticking to his matchup. Zappitello starts against the opposition’s best attacker but can, and should, switch if a pick comes against him so he isn’t caught up.

That stems from Zappitello’s understanding of Maryland’s defensive scheme. All six defenders rely on each other and play with the idea that the team defense matters most.

Still, Zappitello has proven himself to become the Terps’ best defender, giving Maryland a prime option against college lacrosse’s best offensive threats.

“We’re blessed to have him,” Tillman said.