Each day, a stylish photo of both simplicity and message awaited Maryland defensive players. Before every 6 a.m. lift, every practice, every game, a preview of the Rentschler Field Memorial Day 2021 scoreboard looked at the Terrapins. It was inescapable: “Virginia 17, Maryland 16”.
It was also unforgettable. How could anyone be amnesiac about being so close to a national title? The daily memory recall was the brainchild of defensive coordinator Jesse Bernhardt, and few are better qualified to invoke Maryland’s legacy of effective goal prevention than the former All-American.
“We allowed 17 goals last year, and that’s horrible for a Maryland defense,” said defensive midfielder Roman Puglise. “I don’t think it’s because of the loss. I think it was, ‘Let’s get back to our standards and who we are. Let’s do this thing right.
Maryland has returned to its standards. He did just about everything, from start to finish. And he found himself in East Hartford, Connecticut, nearly a year to the day, his last chance to cap off a perfect season with a different ending.
While the Terps have been lauded for their prodigious offense all year, it would be resolute defense that carried Maryland to its fourth NCAA Tournament title.
“It wasn’t pretty, but who cares?” We are champions.
— Romain Puglise
ANY CITY Maryland is found in all seasons. If the Terps were on the road, there was one thing coach John Tillman could count on to happen on the morning of every game.
When he was going down to the team hotel for breakfast, Brett Makar was already there talking to his family.
Memorial Day was no different. Tillman woke up before most of his players, allowing them to sleep late after a weather-delayed semi-final two days earlier against Princeton. But there was Makar on the phone.
“If you look at the All-American boy, I don’t think I’ve ever heard him swear,” Tillman said.
Long before the season started — and long before images of a New England scoreboard adorned his locker at College Park — Makar had emerged as a key leadership figure for Maryland. The Terps graduated Nick Grill after last season, and Makar was entering his fourth year on the program.
Yet it wasn’t just his turn. Starting from his first game as a rookie, Makar was clearly the next in a long line of top-notch defenders. He played with Curtis Corley, who was previously teammate with Tim Muller and Matt Dunn, who played with Casey Ikeda and Michael Ehrhardt, who were part of a defensive unit that featured Bernhardt on long pole.
The bloodline counts in a program that has produced at least one All-American defenseman or midfielder every year since 1999. And Makar embodies it.
“He’s bleeding Maryland into 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 this all-encompassing Terpness going for him.
“Terpness” covers a lot in Tillman’s program, including a focus on the immediate task at hand that often feels robotic. Still, as the calendar turned to May, it was hard for anyone in the Maryland locker room to miss the underlying strength.
This was especially true for Makar and Logan Wisnauskas, the hyper-focused striker who normally possesses little interest in reflecting on the past. They were the two Terps with post-game media duties following the loss of the title match in 2021, a chore neither of them forgot.
“Me and Logan all week, all month, we traded the image of us doing the media last year with the headline, ‘Maryland loses national title,'” Makar said. “Just this image got stuck in my head.”
They were hardly the only veterans who took the end of 2021 with them. There was Matt Rahill, who switched between long pole and tight defense early in his career before finding a place as a glue guy among bigger names as a fifth-year senior.
Likewise, John Geppert spent time in tight defense before moving to long bat 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 an unforeseen twist before the fall, attacking stalwart Bubba Fairman opted to use his eligibility pandemic bonus year as a defensive midfielder. It wasn’t a gimmick. With his athleticism, the Utah native became an asset in a position he had only played sparingly before.
And then there’s the guy who showed a little ingenuity, a lot of stubbornness, and probably a good pain tolerance was the right mix for a memorable Memorial Day.
IT WAS FUNNY IN HIS WAY, at least in Puglise. He had done the same thing, game after game, for five years. Slip and stitch. Slip and stitch. Only this time, in an all-time national semi-final, his right hand took the worst.
Puglise was back in the locker room at the end of the first quarter in their penultimate college game. Maryland was on the verge of winning, and there was no way after the previous year that he wouldn’t be on the court. It was outfitted with gear that was part sunk, part glove, and returned on Memorial Day.
Like others on defense, Puglise, who Bernhardt described as “one of the most alpha males” to come through the program, found inspiration (and some irritation) in the way the Terps gave away the most goals in a post-season game since 2005 to top the previous year.
But Puglise also held an echo of what it was like when he arrived on campus in late summer 2017. He saw all the trappings of a title team, but didn’t. never been able to experience them through his own work.
“It’s a really weird dynamic to join a team that has just won a national championship,” he said. “They go to the White House and do all this in the fall. It’s weird being a freshman and [realizing] that’s what we’re waiting for now.
It takes household names – the Makars, the Rahills, the Puglises – to make a title chase happen. But it also requires some pleasant, if not entirely expected, developments to unfold.
While it didn’t happen directly on defense, the rise of Luke Wierman was part of it. Wierman was a sub-.500 face-to-face guy as a redshirt rookie in 2021. He ranked second nationally at X with .661 percentage in 2022, tilting the field significantly in favor of the Terps .
Not all breakouts are equally recognizable. With Grill’s departure, Maryland had a vacancy in the starting lineup. In Ajax Zappitello, a sophomore whose extra strength and technically sound play won the job this spring. Bernhardt and Tillman knew there would be on-the-job training, and the year hasn’t been completely even for the Oregonian. But Zappitello improved as the year progressed, and his effort to hold Virginia star Connor Shellenberger scoreless in the quarterfinals proved to be one of the best defensive efforts of the season.
Zappitello was sharp in the final four, but no one on the Maryland defense was better than goaltender Logan McNaney. After making a career-high 19 saves in the semi-final against Princeton, he added another 17 saves in Cornell’s 9-7 loss in the title game. “I think he played the best two games of his career in the last two games,” Puglise said.