STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — There’s an old adage in sports that it’s hard to beat a team three times in a season.
Heading into its matchup against undefeated Maryland, the Michigan men’s lacrosse team hoped that that adage would once again rear its head. After a historic win over Ohio State in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, the Wolverines were primed to catch the Terrapins — who had not played in over a week — dozing.
Against Michigan’s best wishes, though, the abilities of Maryland’s usual suspects were on full display on Thursday afternoon. On the back of a career-high 10-point, eight-goal outing from attackman Jared Bernhardt, the No. 1-ranked Terrapins (11-0 Big Ten) ended the Wolverines’ (3-9) season in the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament, defeating them, 16-8.
“I think (our last) game, the last game of the year, maybe we walked off the field feeling like we didn’t play our best game,” Maryland coach John Tillman said. “Having that week off, I thought was really helpful for our guys just to kind of step away and catch their breath. … They were really excited (today).”
The Wolverines’ offense began the contest with the same tenacity and confidence that propelled it to victory against the Buckeyes.
Three minutes in, Michigan sophomore attackman Josh Zawada opened the scoring when he dodged from behind the crease and snuck a goal past Terrapins’ goalkeeper Logan McNaney. Just minutes later, graduate transfer midfielder Tyler Papa dodged hard down the right alley and fired a low-angle shot to the top left corner, extending the Wolverines lead to two.
Meanwhile, Maryland was kept silent for the first half of the opening quarter: partly due to a string of saves from Michigan junior goalkeeper John Kiracofe, partly due to the fact that a trio of its shots ricocheted off the post.
The Wolverines’ composure, and the Terrapins’ dormancy, would only last for so long, though.
As a 16-minute scoring drought ensued for Michigan, largely a consequence of several errant passes on offense, Maryland began to capitalize off its own possessions. Using speed to their advantage, the Terrapins picked apart a disjointed Wolverines’ defense and rattled off six-straight goals — four of which came from Bernhardt.
“The ball just zips, and (Bernhardt) is just too dynamic,” Michigan coach Kevin Conry said. “We just didn’t have the guy to really keep up with them. … He’s just special. He’s the best player in the country.”
Added Tillman: “(Bernhardt) is so good against zone, because not only is he a guy you have to factor in and you’re now not marking up with your defender, he is so good off the ball. … You have a guy like Jared that can slip into all these different areas, and it causes a lot of problems.”
Tallies from freshman attackman Michael Boehm and junior attackman Bryce Clay temporarily breathed some life into the Wolverines. But Michigan’s zone defense continued to struggle with communication, and a pair of time-and-room goals allowed Maryland to head into halftime with a comfortable four-goal lead, 8-4.
The second half unfolded in nearly identical fashion as the first, with the Terrapins once again outpacing the Wolverines 8-4. Another lengthy scoring run — highlighted by a stunning one-handed catch and finish on the run by Bernhardt — allowed Maryland to hold an eight-goal lead over Michigan at one point.
Whenever the Wolverines managed to land a punch on the Terrapins, Maryland’s offense always seemed to have an answer, and then some.
As Team X’s season comes to a close, it is important to celebrate the many milestones accrued by the program over the past couple months: its first win over Johns Hopkins, its first Big Ten Tournament win, an All-Big Ten First Team season from junior faceoff midfielder Nick Rowlett.
But at the same time, while these accolades are emblematic of Michigan’s growth, Thursday’s outcome proves that the Wolverines are still not ready to take down an opponent of the Terrapins’ caliber. No matter many times they face off in a season.
At least not quite yet.
“We have a solid unit out there,” Conry said. “The opportunity ahead of us now is to go back, learn and then start with the preseason and fall to help these young guys. … Because right now, we’re solid. (And) Maryland is elite. So how do we go ahead and take that jump from solid to elite? That’s what goes into horses and offseason training programs. It’s all of our lifts. It’s fall ball. It’s scrimmages. It’s everything.”