Maryland again has a chance to close a season as the first undefeated champion since Virginia in 2006.
“With this group, knowing how far they got, with so many guys back, they were driven to get to Monday, for sure,” said Maryland Coach John Tillman, whose program will play in its seventh national title game since 2011.
The Terps (17-0) have rarely faced serious challenges this season. They have trailed in only four games and have won by fewer than four goals just once.
It is a team largely defined by a ruthless efficiency coupled with a metronomic sense that nothing has been accomplished yet. Now that the final day of the season is near, perhaps that will change at Rentschler Field — also the site of last year’s loss to Virginia.
“I think we’re all very excited for the actual opportunity that we have to play tomorrow,” goalie Logan McNaney said Sunday. “It’s another day to have together, and we’re going to cherish that.”
To complete the job, Maryland will have to contend with a program with which it shares a remarkable number of ties.
Tillman is a Cornell alumnus, as is graduate transfer Jonathan Donville. The midfielder has 30 goals and 22 assists in his lone year at Maryland after playing parts of three seasons for the Big Red before the pandemic cut short his junior year in 2020 and eliminated his senior year in 2021.
There is a long history between the schools in the NCAA tournament, with Cornell winning a pair of national title games in 1971 and 1976 and Maryland claiming the past two postseason meetings — in the 2014 first round and the 2018 quarterfinals.
But the closest connection is also the most poignant. Richie Moran was a 1960 Maryland graduate who went on to coach at Cornell for 29 years. He led the Big Red to its only three NCAA titles — in 1971, 1976 and 1977.
The patriarch of the Cornell program died last month at 85.
“It’s crazy how [Moran] passes and then the two teams he was most aligned with, his alma mater and a place he called home for so long, they’re playing for a national championship,” Tillman said. “It’s the craziest thing. Coach was very successful and had a great way of impacting people positively. Maybe there’s still some mojo in the works. I know he’s looking down proud. He impacted so many of us.”
While Maryland’s title game appearance is not surprising, the Big Red (14-4) was largely overlooked in the preseason because of an untested roster and its absence of nearly two years.
Cornell won 10 of its first 11 games, then endured a midseason bobble with lopsided home losses to Army and Brown. The Big Red righted things this month, and its 17-10 rout of sixth-seeded Rutgers in the semifinals Saturday came by a larger margin than Maryland’s 13-8 defeat of fifth-seeded Princeton.
At 28, Connor Buczek is the youngest coach to take a team to the national title game, and he has done so in his first season. While the Big Red has played well this month, it is well aware of the deep, experienced and motivated opponent in front of it.
“Maryland’s a fantastic team; they do so much well,” Buczek said. “Obviously they’ve been a handful for every team they’ve played this year. It’s certainly going to take a monumental effort on our part.”
Regardless of Monday’s outcome, Cornell’s legacy this season is secure. The Big Red reached the semifinals for the first time since 2013 and the title game for the first time since 2009.
Maryland will be remembered far more for what happens Monday than in the previous 17 games combined. It had muted celebrations when it won the Big Ten tournament and when it advanced to the Final Four.
The opportunity to close things out when they matter most arrives Monday.
“I don’t feel like it’s a complete failure if we don’t win,” Tillman said. “Sure, there’s going to be disappointment because that was one of the things you were hoping to do. But we’ve accomplished a lot so far. I think the guys would like to finish it off the right way, but that’s a really good Cornell team that’s standing in the way.”