Tillman's discipline, ability to communicate set him apart

New Terps coach helped senior-laden team reach Final Four

May 27, 2011|By Jakob Engelke, The Baltimore Sun

In just one season, Maryland men's lacrosse coach John Tillman has accomplished what was one of the primary reasons that his predecessor is no longer at the helm of the program.

Dave Cottle, the Terps' coach from 2002 through 2010, last led the team to a berth in the Final Four in 2006, falling in the NCAA tournament's first round in 2007 and the quarterfinals the following three years. It was the Terps' penchant for coming up just short that led to Cottle's departure.

The Terps (12-4) are playing during Memorial Day weekend for the first time in five years — they face Duke (14-5) at 6:30 p.m. Saturday — and although the team boasted a senior-laden and talented roster that undoubtedly had the skill to earn a berth in the 16-team postseason field entering the year, Tillman's deft handling of the team has helped push the Terps over the hump.

Tillman's impact on the program was felt by players when he first stepped foot on campus. With a background in coaching at Navy and Harvard, the Terps' first-year coach brought with him an intense attention to detail and a focus on discipline that players had not been accustomed to during their years under Cottle.

Senior midfielder Dan Burns remembers that first day of fall conditioning all too well. After the team's last sprints of the day, Burns started to walk off the field thinking everything had gone fine and planning how he was going to relax. That's when he heard Tillman shout, "All right, I'll see you guys at 5 a.m. tomorrow."

"We were like, 'What are you talking about?'" Burns recalled. "[Tillman] said, 'Everyone didn't touch the line. We've got to come back.' It's the little things like that. Ever since then everybody made sure they touched the lines."

Burns saw the team's hard work pay off in last weekend's quarterfinals, when the Terps topped Syracuse in overtime, 6-5. In a gritty, defensive game, players fought for every ground ball, ran out every shot on offense and sprinted back to the defensive zone whenever Syracuse gained possession.

"In the game against Syracuse, we were like, 'It's going to be one of those touch-the-line games,'" Burns said. "You're going to take the easy way or take those extra few steps that help you win the game."

And even though Tillman brought some new things to the program, such as the requirement for players to wear a collared shirt and tie to every game, his ability to mesh with a veteran Terps team, and specifically its 17-member senior class, through a constant give-and-take is what helped ensure a smooth transition from Cottle.

Before Tillman even arrived in College Park, he called the team's seniors and asked for input on practice routines and schedules. The extra effort from the coach didn't go unnoticed.

"He realized we were a senior-laden team," goalkeeper Niko Amato said. "He puts a lot of trust in them and knows they're great leaders for us. He would go to them and talk things out. He wasn't so much a dictator, but he kind of sees what the team feels and how they've been doing things. But when it came down to it, Coach Tillman would always make the ultimate decision. That was a good way to run the show."

"Leadership doesn't mean you're scaring people into doing things," Tillman said. "You want people to take ownership. If they have goals, and you have goals, you go, 'All right, we've established our goals. How are we going to get there?' … I didn't come in here going, 'This is how we're going to do it. We're going to change everything.' I didn't feel like what was here was broken. All we wanted to do was tweak it."

With help and guidance from Tillman, the Terps have finally gotten back to the Final Four, and players — especially seniors — said they don't want their run to end just yet. After accomplishing two of their self-stated goals for the season — winning an ACC Championship and earning a spot in the Final Four — the Terps still have one more to check off the list.

"I was so excited that we finally got over that hump," senior attackman Ryan Young said. "Although we did get over that hump, we're not trying to get complacent. We want to keep winning by sticking to our game plan. We want a national championship."



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