At the start of the 2011 season, Maryland wouldn’t have qualified as a “surprise” participant in the NCAA Division I Men’s Lacrosse Championship. The Terrapins started the season ranked third in the Nike/Inside Lacrosse Media Poll, ahead of defending champion Duke. The No. 3 ranking  put them ahead of everyone not named Syracuse or Virginia. In Grant Catalino, Brian Farrell, Brett Schmidt and Ryan Young, Maryland had more players on the Tewaaraton Award watch list than any team other than the preseason No. 1 Orange.

However, what wouldn’t have been a surprise in February is stunning in May. The Terrapins may have the shortest trip to Baltimore of any of the teams at this weekend’s championship, but there’s no denying they got to the championship the hard way.

Maryland went 1-2 in their regular-season ACC games, including a heartbreaking 9-8 overtime loss to Duke on March 5, and lost another overtime thriller to traditional rival Johns Hopkins on April 16. The Terrapins bounced back from that disappointment to win the ACC championship by avenging their earlier losses to Duke and North Carolina, but took a hard hit heading into the national tournament when they dropped a 10-8 decision at home to Colgate in the final game of the regular season.

“I think it goes to show that it doesn’t really matter how many guys you have coming back,” said Terrapins head coach John Tillman, “You’re always going to lose critical parts of each team after graduation and for us, we lost some really important guys and maybe we didn’t lose a lot of them, but we lost a goalie that was great in big games, we lost two short stick d-middies that were tough, experienced, and relentless.”

Tillman’s first season at the helm of the Terrapins was also marred by injuries, including senior midfielders Dan Burns and Scott Larue – “he got hurt two days before the first Syracuse scrimmage and it took him about six weeks to get close to being 100%,” Tillman said – which didn’t make things any easier.

“Almost every senior on our team has missed some time this year,” Tillman said. “And then we’re the only team left that had to go through a new coaching staff, a new terminology, new philosophies.  So our kids were still getting to know us even up till a couple of weeks ago.”

While Tillman is in his first year in College Park after three years at Harvard and time as an assistant at Navy and Ithaca, it hasn’t taken him long to learn about his new home’s character. That’s certainly come out during his team’s run to Baltimore.

“I think we relish the role of the underdog,” Tillman said, “and I don’t think it’s unique to our team.  I think it’s pretty consistent here at University of Maryland.  I think you look at Gary Williams and the fire and the passion that he plays with, or he coached with, and his team’s played with.  I think it’s pretty consistent across the board here.”

Unseeded for the tournament, it’s debatable whether the Terrapins were a true underdog when they headed for a rubber-match with eighth-seeded North Carolina – the hidden ball trick that made national highlights was just one goal in Maryland’s 13-6 – but there was no denying that the Terps were not the favorite when they traveled to Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., for their quarterfinal matchup with top seed Syracuse. Keeping the Orange out of the championship weekend would qualify as a surprise at any point in the year, but that’s exactly what the Terrapins did with a 6-5 overtime victory.

“We had to go to North Carolina and everybody has a different opinion on our seeding, and we didn’t really focus on that,” Tillman said. “We kind of drew strength from the fact that nobody thought we were good and we are going to have earn everybody’s respect.  But to get us ready for Syracuse, to go up to Boston and have to bus up there because of transportation situation was not ideal. 

“Every time things have gotten hard we’ve just kind of reinforced - that’s just the way it is for us.  The only way we can get to where we want to is if it’s hard and the more hard things we do, the more prepared for the challenges that are going to be facing us, ahead of us.”

Now, the challenge facing the Terrapins is a rubber match with Duke. As with North Carolina, Maryland lost the regular-season matchup before exacting revenge in the ACC tournament. After starting this postseason run with a win in their third meeting with the Tar Heels, Tillman and his team are obviously hoping to achieve a similar result against the Blue Devils, but they know that it won’t be easy.

“To try to beat Duke, again, is going to be really, really tough,” Tillman said. “They’re experienced.  They’ve been here.  They’re more experienced than we are.  They’re ridiculously athletic.  They’re the national champions.  Well now beating Syracuse and beating Carolina, that’s going to help us get ready to put us in a position where we would have a chance to win that game.  But our guys, they just bought into we can’t get anything easy.”

And, having gotten this far and reaching the championship weekend for the first time since 1996, the Terrapins are ready to take the hard road one more time, hoping that an NCAA championship trophy is waiting for them at the end.

“We’re obviously very excited for our school, our alums and our state to be part of this weekend for the first time in a bit,” Tillman said. “With a senior-laden group, it’s obviously been a very challenging road, given the season that we had, and then going through unseeded. Trying to play a talented Duke team for the third time and get a win, we’ll have our work cut out for us, but we’re excited to be here.”