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Lasting Image, Resolute Defense Carry Maryland into History Books


Every single day, a photo elegant in both simplicity and message awaited Maryland’s defensive players. Before each 6 am lift, each practice, each game, a glimpse of the Rentschler Field scoreboard on Memorial Day 2021 stared back at the Terrapins. It was inescapable: “Virginia 17, Maryland 16.”

It was also unforgettable. How could anyone have amnesia about coming so close to a national title? The daily memory-jogging was defensive coordinator Jesse Bernhardt’s idea, and few are better qualified to invoke Maryland’s legacy of proficient goal prevention than the former All-American.

“We gave up 17 goals last year, and that is horrendous for a Maryland defense,” defensive midfielder Roman Puglise said. “I don’t think it was about the loss. I think it was, ‘Let’s get back to our standards and who we are. Let’s do this thing right.’”

Maryland got back to its standards. It did just about everything right from start to finish. And it found itself right back in East Hartford, Connecticut, nearly a year to the day of its last chance to close out a perfect season with a different ending.

While the Terps were lauded for their prodigious offense all year, it would be a resolute defense that carried Maryland to its fourth NCAA tournament title.

“It wasn’t pretty, but who the hell cares? We’re champs.”

— Roman Puglise

IT DIDN’T MATTER WHAT TOWN Maryland found itself in all seasons. If the Terps were on the road, there was one thing coach John Tillman could count on happening the morning of every game.

When he went downstairs at the team hotel for breakfast, Brett Makar would already be there talking to his family.

Memorial Day was no different. Tillman woke up before most of his players from him, allowing them to sleep in late after a weather-delayed semifinal two days earlier against Princeton. But there was Makar, on the phone.

“If you’re looking at the All-American boy, I don’t think I’ve ever heard him swear,” Tillman said.

Well before the season began — and well before images of a New England scoreboard adorned his locker in College Park — Makar emerged as a pivotal leadership figure for Maryland. The Terps graduated Nick Grill after last season, and Makar was heading into his fourth year in the program.

Yet it was more than just his turn. A starter since his first game as a freshman, Makar was clearly the next in a long line of high-end defensemen. He played with Curtis Corley, who earlier was teammates with Tim Muller and Matt Dunn, who played with Casey Ikeda and Michael Ehrhardt, who were part of a defensive unit that featured Bernhardt at long pole.

The lineage matters in a program that’s produced at least one All-American defenseman or long-stick midfielder every year since 1999. And Makar embodies it.

“He bleeds Maryland in everything,” Bernhardt said. “You see that in the way he plays. It’s the way he talks about his teammates, the way he talks about Maryland as a program. He kind of has that all-compassing Terpness to him.”

“Terpness” covers a lot in Tillman’s program, including a single-minded focus on the immediate task at hand that often seems robotic. Yet as the calendar turned to May, it was hard for anyone in Maryland’s locker room to miss the undergirding force.

It was especially true for Makar and Logan Wisnauskas, the hyper-focused attackman who normally possesses little interest in reflecting on the past. They were the two Terps with postgame media duties after the title game lost in 2021, a chore neither of them forgot.

“Me and Logan all week, all month, have been sending the picture back and forth of us doing media last year with the headline, ‘Maryland loses national title,’” Makar said. “Just that image has been stuck in my head.”

They were hardly the only veterans who carried the end of 2021 with them. There was Matt Rahill, who toggled between long pole and close defense early in his career before finding a place as a glue guy amidst bigger names as a fifth-year senior.

Similarly, John Geppert spent time at close defense before settling at long stick and was in his fourth year in the program. Transfers like Jake Higgins (Cleveland State) and Alex Smith (Hartford) helped Maryland rebuild a short-stick defensive midfield unit that faded after the 2017 championship.

And in a twist unforeseen prior to the fall, offensive mainstay Bubba Fairman chose to use his pandemic bonus year of eligibility as a defensive midfielder. It wasn’t a gimmick. With his athleticism, the Utah native developed into an asset at a position he had played only sparingly before.

And then there’s the guy who provided a little ingenuity, a lot of stubbornness and probably a fair bit of pain tolerance was the right mix for a memorable Memorial Day.

IT WAS FUNNY IN ITS OWN WAY, at least to Puglise. He had done the same thing, game after game, for five years. Slide and jab. Slide and jab. Only this time, in a national semifinal of all times, his right hand took the worst of it.

Puglise was back in the locker room by the end of the first quarter in his penultimate college game. Maryland was on its way to winning, and there was no chance after the previous year he wasn’t getting on the field. He was outfitted with a contraption that was part cast, part glove and returned on Memorial Day.

Like others on the defense, Puglise, whom Bernhardt described as “one of the most alpha males” to pass through the program, found inspiration (and some irritation) in how the Terps surrendered their most goals in a postseason game since 2005 to cap the previous year.

But Puglise also held in mind an echo of what it was like when he first arrived on campus late in the summer of 2017. He saw all the trappings of a title team, but never got to experience them through his own work.

“It’s a really weird dynamic joining a team that just won a national championship,” he said. “They’re going to the White House and doing all this stuff in the fall. It’s weird being a freshman and [realizing] this is what’s expected now.”

It takes some knowns — the Makars, the Rahills, the Puglises — to make a title run happen. But it also requires pleasant if not entirely expected developments to unfold.

While it didn’t directly occur on defense, the ascension of Luke Wierman was one of those. Wierman was a sub-.500 faceoff guy as a redshirt freshman in 2021. He ranked second nationally at the X with a .661 percentage in 2022, substantially tilting the field in the Terps’ favor.

Not every breakout is quite so recognizable. With Grill’s departure, Maryland had one vacancy in the starting lineup. In stepped Ajax Zappitello, a sophomore whose added strength and technically sound play won the job this spring. Bernhardt and Tillman knew there would be some on-the-job training, and the year wasn’t completely even for the Oregonian. But Zappitello improved as the year unfolded, and his efforts by him in holding Virginia star Connor Shellenberger without a point in the quarterfinals provided one of the season’s best defensive efforts.

Zappitello was sharp in the final four, but no one on the Maryland defense was better than goalie Logan McNaney. After making a career-high 19 saves in the semifinal against Princeton, he tackled on another 17 stops in the 9-7 defeat of Cornell in the title game. “I think he played the two best games of his career the last two games,” Puglise said.

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