Maryland enters its fifth consecutive NCAA semifinal appearance after a season fueled by familiar faces.
Connor Kelly. Dan Morris. Bryce Young. Tim Rotanz. Jared Bernhardt. Each was tabbed with some level of All-America honor this week.
The Terrapins (14-3) are the furthest thing from an afterthought entering a date with fourth-seeded Duke (15-3) at Gillette Stadium on Saturday. They’re the tournament’s No. 1 seed. They’re the defending national champions.
And yet … their identity is still suffused with the ethos of the overlooked scrapper, if only because Maryland’s postseason success in recent years has hinged on role players emerging at the right time to make a major difference.
“It’s not your star players who win you these games,” junior long pole Nick Brozowski said. “It’s kind of the role players. It’s the underdogs. I think being able to give those types of guys the confidence to be able play well in these games is huge, and that’s what we kind of build upon.”
Reserve long pole Michael Adler and second-line midfielder Anthony DeMaio are among the breakout stars of this postseason for Maryland. Last year, it was Adam DiMillo scoring twice in the first half of the national title game and Brozowski setting a career-high with five ground balls in that same game.
Keep going back, and examples abound. Pat Young, who ran on Maryland’s second midfield line in 2016 after transferring in from UMBC, scored a season-high four goals in a quarterfinal defeat of Syracuse. A year earlier, a freshman midfielder who had scored just twice all year recorded a hat trick against North Carolina in the quarterfinals.
His name was Connor Kelly, and he’s now a Tewaaraton finalist about to play in his fourth final four. And while he likely would have developed into a strong college player anyway, his surprise outburst in 2015 paid both immediate and long-term dividends for the Terps.
“When you’re on a stage like that and score three goals, the ifs — ‘If I can do it’ — goes away,” coach John Tillman said. “Now it’s, ‘I know I can do it,’ and I have to work hard and make the most of my opportunity. With young players, sometimes your mind can play tricks on you. Can I do this? As much as a coach can tell you that you’re good enough, when you have success, nobody can talk you out of it.”
DeMaio arrived at Maryland in time for the spring semester last year. The all-time leading scorer in California high school history, DeMaio knew from the moment practice began he would redshirt.
It wasn’t just that he missed fall ball. Maryland’s attack was filled with seniors, and so DeMaio watched Matt Rambo, Colin Heacock and Dylan Maltz — all while absorbing some lessons on the Terps’ scout team while facing the likes of defenseman Tim Muller.
But he also had the opportunity to see how other players developed, and that a college season was never static.
“Last year we had guys like Ben Chisolm and guys like that step in and play huge roles late in the season,” DeMaio said this week. “Looking at them and seeing what they did — take extra shots after practice, all that stuff — that helped them be as successful as they were, I think that translated over to what I was trying to do.”
DeMaio was the first of three players to earn a turn as Maryland’s nominal third attackman, starting the first three games of the season.
Eventually, he settled into a reserve midfield role, but there was always the sense in the locker room DeMaio could contribute if needed.
“It definitely gave me a little bit more confidence to go out there, just to play confident and fast,” DeMaio said. “I feel like at the beginning of the season I was a little bit slow and just kind of timid. Your first couple of games, you’re obviously a little bit nervous.”
Some solid games came. He had a goal and an assist against North Carolina in late March. He scored back-to-back weeks against Rutgers and Ohio State last month. But the true breakout came in the first round of the tournament, when he doubled his career assist total in a span of less than six minutes in the third quarter against Robert Morris.
The last of his three assists — to fellow reserve Colin Giblin, a senior who had never scored in consecutive games until finding the net in the Big Ten title game and Maryland’s first two NCAA tournament contests — gave the Terps the lead for good and helped them survive a scare from the Northeast Conference champions.
“As teams start to scout more and more, those guys that weren’t doing as much get more opportunities to do things because guys like Connor Kelly and Jared are getting a little bit more attention than maybe at the beginning of the season,” said DeMaio, who also scored twice Sunday against Cornell in the quarterfinals.
Tillman’s coaching style could be described as “worriedly positive.” Extremely detail-oriented and quick to defer credit, Maryland’s eighth-year coach has little interest in drawing attention to himself. But he’s also largely responsible for establishing the Terps’ high standards on and off the field, which not surprising for someone so concerned with dotting Is and crossing Ts.
Yet when it comes to developing players, he’s most likely to take a constructive approach. Mistakes need to be corrected, but in most cases that can be done in a calm, methodical way.
Which brings things back to Brozowski, a Massachusetts native who was especially excited about returning home to play in last year’s final four. When he thinks back to what he considers his best game of his redshirt sophomore year — on Memorial Day against Ohio State, when he was like a magnet for the ball — the trust and belief of the coaching staff made a difference.
“Tills before the game was like, ‘You’re one of the big reasons why you’re here,’ and that gives you a lot of confidence going into a game like that,” Brozowski said. “They said, ‘Just do what you need to do. Don’t make a play. Make the play.’ That kind of mentality stuck with me in that game and I’ve tried to carry it over into this year.”
While Brozowski spent his first two years in College Park developing on the scout team before becoming one of the Terps’ regular long poles in 2017, DiMillo was a highly touted offensive player who was thrown into the defensive midfield rotation as a freshman out of necessity.
He didn’t score in his first 50 career games, and even after delivering goals last year against Johns Hopkins in late April and Bryant in the first round of the tournament, he was an unlikely candidate to have a multi-goal first half in the national championship game.
Unlikely by most standards other than Maryland’s, that is. DiMillo’s two goals helped the Terps establish a lead they wouldn’t relinquish in the second half as they rolled to a 9-6 victory and their first NCAA title since 1975.
“What happens on game day is a reflection of what goes on in practice,” DiMillo said. “How you prepare is how you play. How we prepared has allowed guys not to step in, but to fall into that role. It’s not necessarily that they’re stepping up.”
DiMillo’s played more offense this season as a senior, but remains valuable all over the field. Brozowski returned from a one-game injury absence last week and has split time with Matt Neufeldt at pole all season. They’re both better-known players now than a year ago, with breakout showings last May presaging strong follow-up seasons.
“You kind of build up to it all year,” Brozowski said. “Especially early in the year, the coaches are trying to put you in situations where you’re very uncomfortable and you’re facing a lot of adversity even at practice. At the time, you may think it’s silly or you may think it doesn’t have anything to do [with success]. But I think at the end of the day, especially in the playoffs with these deep runs, I think it makes a difference mentality-wise.”
Adler is from New Jersey, but he grew up watching Maryland. He began his career at UMass Lowell and started 13 games as a freshman, but felt he was far from home. He’d always wanted to go to Maryland, but did not give it much thought when he selected a school because the Terps didn’t offer him anything.
Ultimately, though, Maryland represented what he wanted in a school. He transferred with no guarantee of a roster spot, walked on as a sophomore and got into one game. Last year, he was an option on the man-down unit but still only played in six games.
This year? Three starts in February as Young worked his way back from injury and an even more prominent role on the man-down team.
“I was happy to be on the team, but there’s no pinnacle,” Adler said. “Everybody preaches that. Every year, it’s been, ‘What else can I do to at least contribute a little more.’ Last year it was a little bit more and this year I’ve had the opportunity and I’ve been very grateful for it. I’ve been able to do a lot more.”
The last two Sundays, he’s become another avatar for Maryland’s supporting cast performing when it matters. Against Robert Morris, he assisted on a transition goal when the Terps trailed 4-1, providing a needed jolt while recording his first point since he came to College Park.
A week later, he scored a first-half goal off a faceoff wing, energizing the Maryland sideline with his first career score while also providing an immediate response to Cornell’s first goal of the day.
“Everyone was rushing the field,” Adler said. “It was a little too much. I felt like it was almost like ‘Why me?’”
There’s an easy answer. As much as Maryland needs the Kellys and Bernhardts to thrive, it’s enjoyed its best moment in recent years because of the timely work in May of lesser-known players — many with less gilded pedigrees than the Terps’ All-America picks.
“I think that’s who he is, and I think that’s everyone on this team,” Brozowski said. “I think guys care so much. If you’re not playing, you may be disappointed, but at the same time it just makes you work harder. I think that’s the glue of our team.”