Midfielder Kevin Tucker (35) on the move for Maryland against...

Midfielder Kevin Tucker (35) on the move for Maryland against Virginia on Saturday, May 25, 2024. Credit: James Beaver

PHILADELPHIA — Having the best defender in the country brings a lot of confidence to a team and Maryland gets that from Ajax Zappitello.

There was a moment early on in Saturday’s semifinal game against Virginia, though, when it seemed as if that might not be enough for the Terps. Less than a minute into play, Connor Shellenberger, Virginia’s top scorer and Zappitello’s mark for the afternoon, buzzed past him one-on-one for the first goal of the game.

Maryland’s faith in Zappitello never budged, though. They kept him locked on Shellenberger while rarely sliding help in his direction and ultimately he rewarded them for that, holding his target to just one assist the rest of the game and leading No. 7 Maryland to a 12-6 win in front of 32,269 at Lincoln Financial Field.

“Ajax is incredible,” fellow Maryland defender Colin Burlace said. “To be able to take a player like Connor Shellenberger and put him on an island with Ajax, I mean, he’s amazing . . . He’s the leader of our defense and he’s been killing it all year. Nothing is going to change that.”

Virginia coach Lars Tiffany said he thought that first goal was going to be a harbinger in both the game and the individual clash. Shellenberger’s two points tied his season low.

“It wound up being more the anomaly that the norm,” the former Stony Brook coach said. “Connor just wasn’t able to shed him.”

Zappitello and Maryland will have a much bigger challenge when they face top-seeded Notre Dame in the final on Monday that pits the last two champions against each other. Notre Dame beat Maryland, 14-9, when they played in March. Zappitello will likely be matched up against either Pat or Chris Kavanagh, the attackmen from Rockville Center who each scored three goals in their semifinal win over Denver earlier in the day.

“Oof,” Maryland Coach John Tillman said with an audible grunt when asked what concerned him about Notre Dame. “They were the best team last year and they’ve been the best team all year this year.”

Saturday, though, Maryland (11-5) was able to overwhelm No. 6 Virginia (12-6). It did it defensively — Virginia managed 39 shots but only 15 were on goal — and it did it on faceoffs with Luke Wierman winning 15 of the 22 draws. Daniel Kelly, meanwhile, scored three goals and Eric Spanos had two goals and three assists for Maryland, which will make its 16th championship game appearance in search of its fifth title.

Maryland fans certainly had little reason to believe they would reach this level when the team lost back-to-back games to Johns Hopkins and Penn State a little over a month ago by a combined score of 26-14, but Tillman said that is what has made this late-season run that also included an upset win over No. 2 Duke in last week’s quarterfinals so special.

“It’s all about the journey,” he said. “You go through a lot of ups and downs… We’ve had some bad moments and I’ll own that. At times we have not played well. But the thing most rewarding is the guys never pointed a finger, everybody stuck together, everybody kept believing.”.


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