FOXBOROUGH - It was almost impossible for John Tillman to bring his University of Maryland men’s lacrosse team to Harvard Stadium Thursday for practice and not get nostalgic as it prepared for its Final Four matchup Saturday with Duke.
In 2008, when lacrosse coach Scott Anderson stepped down after 20 years to become Harvard’s assistant athletic director, the Crimson took a chance on Tillman, 38 at the time. He had been an assistant at Ithaca and Navy but never a head coach.
He spent just three years at Harvard - a losing season, a winning season, a .500 season - but as a coach they were his formative ones.
“I learned so much as a young head coach that I use every day,’’ he said. “If it wasn’t for that experience I wouldn’t be where I’m at now. So, I’m greatly indebted to Harvard for that.’’
Tillman has been in College Park for two seasons, and has led the Terrapins to two Final Fours. He’s the only coach in history to do so in consecutive seasons with unseeded teams.
Tillman knew when he came to Maryland that he was inheriting a team with a fierce tradition - lacrosse is the state sport and Maryland is the state university - but he knew he could maintain a program that’s never had a losing season (in 86 years!) because he was able to build a program in Cambridge through trial and error.
“You go through three years, you’re playing 40 games - whether it’s a win or a loss - dealing with adversity, managing young people, all those things, every year it gets a little bit easier,’’ said Tillman. “You have more things to reflect upon, more experiences.
“You go, ‘In this situation I handled it this way and that seemed to work.’ [Or] ‘This maybe didn’t work very well, so my guy tells me to go in this direction.’ Harvard was great. It taught me how to take a program and build it up.’’
The Terrapins will face a Duke team that’s gone to seven of the last eight Final Fours, and won it all two years ago.
In the last two seasons, Duke and Maryland have played each other six times. There’s familiarity, but Terrapins midfielder John Haus said neither team has an advantage because of that.
“We know each other so well,’’ said Haus, who’s been a force this season with 15 goals and 16 assists.
The biggest issue for Maryland will be dealing with Duke’s firepower. Jordan Wolf, Christian Walsh, Robert Rotanz, and Josh Dionne have each scored at least 32 goals for the Blue Devils this season.
“They can just catch fire at any time during a game,’’ Haus said.
In the other semifinal, Loyola University of Maryland is the tournament’s ultimate paradox, a top seed that was unranked to start the season. The Greyhounds responded to the snub with the best season in school history (16-1).
Their opponent, Notre Dame, is back after falling to Duke in the 2010 final, and when he was doing his homework on the Greyhounds, Fighting Irish coach Kevin Corrigan said the last thing he looked at was how they were viewed in the preseason.
“You have ultimate respect for anybody that ends up in this point of the season, in these games,’’ Corrigan said. “I don’t care where they started in the rankings. Who does those rankings? I don’t even know what that’s about. They earned where they’re at right now, and that’s the No. 1 seed in the tournament. So, I don’t think respect is any part of the question. We’ve got the utmost respect for them.’’
The Greyhounds will have to respect the Irish’s defense, which allows just 6.27 goals a game, the stingiest clip in the country. This is the third Final Four in Notre Dame history.
“If you want to consider yourself a top program, you have to show up here every other year or so, if not every year, to validate that,’’ Corrigan said. “That’s what we’re hoping to be considered. That’s where we want to be. And if you’re in that final eight and competing for a championship on a regular basis, then that’s where you want to be as a program. To be back here means a lot.’’
Tillman, meanwhile, doesn’t look at his team as a powerhouse like Duke. He had a conversation with the former Terrapins basketball coach Gary Williams that convinced him it was better to play with an edge.
“I just talked to him about what it means to be a Terp, and one of the things he always echoed to me was just that mentality of being an underdog, having a chip on your shoulder,’’ Tillman said. “We’re the unseeded team finding our way, they’re more the known. A lot of their parts are back, a lot of their experienced players are back, and we’re the underdog, which listen, they’re such a good team, I get it. When All-Americans [are announced], they get a lot of them. We are what we are, but we’re excited to be here and why not us?’’