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2017 NCAA Championship Weekend Preview: John Tillman

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A closer look at the career of the head coach of the Terrapins.

NCAA Lacrosse: National Championship-North Carolina vs Maryland Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

As Championship Weekend fast approaches, we will be taking a deep look at the Division I participants leading to Saturday’s semifinals. We’ll have team previews, a spotlight on each coach, and a profile on one of the top players for each team. We’ll also be at Gillette Stadium the entire weekend bringing you tons of content!

Earlier in the day, we previewed the Maryland Terrapins team as a whole. Now, we’ll dive into their head coach, John Tillman.

Background & Playing Career

Tillman, 47, grew up in Corning, New York, about an hour southwest of Ithaca, and went to school at Corning West, and was a Maryland fan growing up. His college playing career began at Colgate as a goaltender, but then later transferred to Cornell where head coach Richie Moran, a former Maryland player who won a title in 1959, converted him into a defensive midfielder. He was on the Big Red’s 1989 team that went to the NCAA Tournament, and graduated from their famed School of Hotel Administration in 1991.

After graduating, Tillman didn’t play for six years. His only professional action came in the National Lacrosse League with the Baltimore Thunder and the Washington Power, which coincided with his time as an assistant at Navy. While with the Thunder, he helped the team go to the NLL Semifinals and Championship. He also spent time with the Toyota Lacrosse club for outdoor lacrosse, which was before Major League Lacrosse was formed.

Assistant Coaching Career

Once he was done at Cornell, Tillman stayed close to home and became an assistant coach at Ithaca for four years from 1992 until 1995. He wasn’t sure what to do after graduating, but after working lacrosse camps and getting to know then-Ithaca coach Jeff Long, he was offered a volunteer assistant position, which then turned into a permanent role the following season. In his first year with the team, he helped lead the Bombers to the NCAA semifinals. The following year, he helped lead Ithaca to an ECAC championship.

Tillman then went south to Annapolis at the Naval Academy to join Richie Meade’s staff in 1996. He spent six seasons as an assistant coach, before being promoted to the top assistant role and offensive coordinator in 2002, where he would remain up until 2007. He helped lead the Mids to the 2004 National Championship game, where they fell to Syracuse. Tillman’s offense was third in the nation in scoring, and was rewarded with his first Collegiate Lacrosse Assistant Coach of the Year Award from the Maryland State Lacrosse Coaches Association. In his final four years at Navy, he helped lead the Midshipmen to four straight NCAA Tournament berths, along with four straight Patriot League tournament and regular season championships. Some of the players he helped develop include midfielders Graham Gill and Billy Looney, and attackman Jon Birsner, who’s now the head coach of the VMI Keydets.

Harvard

After the 2007 season, Tillman made the jump from assistant to head coach with the Harvard Crimson, where he spent three seasons before arriving at College Park, Maryland. After a 6-8 campaign in 2008, Tillman turned the Crimson program around in 2009 with an 8-5 overall record and a 3-3 record in Ivy League play, which included a season-opening victory against No. 5 Duke in North Carolina. That marked Harvard’s first winning season since 2004 and for the most wins in a season since 1999.

Prior to the 2010 season, Inside Lacrosse ranked Harvard’s incoming class third in the nation. Although the year resulted in a 6-6 record, the Crimson was able to beat No. 6 Princeton, 11-8, for their first win against the Tigers since 1990.

During his three seasons at Harvard, Tillman compiled an okay overall record of 20-19, but he vastly improved the team’s offense, defense, and extra-man units.

Maryland

After the 2010 season, Tillman became the ninth head coach in Maryland history, replacing Dave Cottle. It was a long-term deal, which was the reason for Tillman to leave Cambridge for College Park. His arrival brought an immediate impact and jolt to the Terrapins, as he led the team to their first ACC championship since 2005 and an appearance in the NCAA National Championship game, where they lost to Virginia by two goals. After he decided to stay at Maryland after Meade retired from Navy, another appearance in the title game followed in 2012, and so did another loss. This time, it was against in-state rival Loyola.

Tillman’s worst year in Maryland came in 2013. Although he went 10-4, the Terps were ousted in the First Round, thanks to a 16-8 slobbering by Rob Pannell and Cornell, Tillman’s alma mater. The following year brought the start of his foundation for the next few years in attackmen Matt Rambo and Colin Heacock, along with Tim Rotanz, Tim Muller, Dan Morris, and Connor Cannizzaro, before he transferred the following season to Denver. It was the top-ranked class according to Inside Lacrosse, and they delivered immediately, with their first trip to Championship Weekend, but fell short in the semifinals to Notre Dame. It was also the final season for Maryland in the ACC.

2015 brought a new era to Maryland lacrosse, as they joined the newly formed Big Ten lacrosse conference. They failed to win the Big Ten tournament after they were upset by Ohio State, but managed to get back to Championship Weekend with wins over Yale and North Carolina. Tillman’s Terps stopped a Cinderella run by Johns Hopkins in the semifinals, before being doubled up in the National Championship against their opponents this weekend, Denver, and Cannizzaro.

Last year brought plenty of promise and a strong feeling that the title drought would end. After losing to Yale and Notre Dame in two of their first three games, Maryland went on a 16-game winning streak, led by a deep midfield with guys such as Henry West and Bryan Cole, before they lost in the title game to North Carolina in overtime.

Tillman has led Maryland to a 14-3 record so far this season, including their second-straight Big Ten championship. Rambo and Heacock are now senior leaders, while Jared Bernhardt is an athletic freshman that could be a star in the making.

That’s What He Said

Here’s a few notes on what Tillman said during Tuesday’s Coaches Teleconference:

  • One big matchup on Saturday will be face-offs between Austin Henningsen and/or Jon Garino, Jr., and Denver’s Trevor Baptiste. Tillman mentioned that Baptiste is “on a level of his own” and stressed the importance of wing play to the success of winning draws. He also does not want to commit any fouls on the draws and give up transition goals, which Baptiste is able to do.
  • Denver’s offense is a very patient and methodical unit. They like to wait until they get the perfect opportunity for a shot. The defense will have to button up and be disciplined at all times.
  • Tillman discussed two offensive players in depth. The first was midfielder Tim Rotanz. He mentioned how the junior’s play has been huge this month in terms of taking another step up, and that he’s taken his play to another level this year compared to last year. He missed all of 2015 due to a battle with vertigo and was on the second midfield line last season with 11 goals and seven assists. This year, he has 27 goals and 10 assists for 37 points, good for fourth on the team in scoring. He’s very poised in any situation, and Rotanz takes pride on that. Younger players such as Bernhardt and second line midfielder Ethan Mintzer are able to look to him for guidance and strength. The junior can also get the team back on track and settle things down when the situation isn’t going Maryland’s way.
  • Tillman also mentioned the development of La Salle College High School product Matt Rambo. Playing at La Salle under two great coaches in Bill Leahy and Tony Resch (I think you might know who asked that question), the senior has become very important for the offense in so many ways. Maryland’s all-time leading point-getter has continued to evolve as a player and a person, and his work ethic and dedication to become a complete player been monumental. As a freshman, he looked to then-No. 1 Mike Chanenchuk as a leader and someone to look at for guidance.
  • Tillman is always appreciative of getting to Championship Weekend each of his six times while at Maryland. He emphasized to try and not to get too far out of his team’s typical routine and try to get to know Denver as much as possible, but not overdo their preparation.
  • After watching their performance against Notre Dame on Saturday, Tillman noted that the unit has been getting better, dating back to the past month, due to more experience, even with injuries affecting their season. “When you think of Coach T [Bill Tierney], you think of defense.”
  • With the three other teams playing at a slow pace, Tillman wants to score early and in transition. He will try to push the ball as much as possible, and use his close defensemen and LSMs, such as Bryce Young and Nick Brozowski, to lead some transition offense.
  • When Tillman first arrived at College Park, he wanted to continue to carry the legacy of his team playing very strong schedules. It gets the kids excited and playing teams with different styles and players battle tests the entire team. There’s always room for improvement, as the coaching staff nit-picks every game and practice in order to maximize each player’s ability throughout the season.