CHAPEL HILL, N.C. --- John Tillman was here last year. And the year before.
Now, his Maryland lacrosse team is struggling to figure out what's wrong as the regular season winds to a close.
"Having a reference point helps, but it's kind of frustrating to put ourselves in that position again," Tillman said in a tunnel at Kenan Stadium Friday after Virginia hammered the Terrapins 13-6 in the ACC semifinals. "It's something we're trying to avoid, yet we keep put ourselves in that spot."
This isn't a matter of whether Maryland (9-3) will make the NCAA tournament or not. It will.
It's not a matter of whether the Terps can earn a home game in the first round of the postseason. It can.
But there's a creeping sense this Maryland edition will struggle to replicate the efforts of its two immediate predecessors, which reached Memorial Day before falling in the national title game.
The issues reside on offense, which not long ago appeared built to fully exploit rules designed to enhance scoring opportunities. It just seems like it was long ago.
The Terps managed four goals against Johns Hopkins, eight against Yale and now seven against Virginia (7-7) over the last three weeks. The Terps did encounter a pair of desperate outfits (Hopkins and Virginia) in that span, losing to both of them.
Regardless, Maryland simply cannot count on scoring much with the postseason fast approaching. What's worse, there isn't an obvious reason why.
"I don't think there can be one single answer to that," attackman Owen Blye said. "It's a culmination of a lot of things. Offense is kind of a tricky thing, where there's six guys out there who have to gel together. I don't really judge us on how many goals we score in a game. I judge us on how much we'll sacrifice for each other throughout the week of practice and how much we're coming together."
Choose to judge the Terps in any way you wish, but their season's expiration date will surely arrive earlier should it not fix its offense. And the way this particular team is built ensures it is a valid question whether that will happen.
Maryland's strength lies in its ability to involve all six players, with its weakest offensive player serving as far less of a liability than most teams --- at least when things are going well.
All six starters have 15 goals, an incredible bit of depth. None have more than 20 goals, which suggests there isn't an unstoppable force in the bunch.
In turn, no one is carrying Maryland when several of its solid players fall into slumps. Kevin Cooper hasn't scored in three games. Neither has Jay Carlson. John Haus snapped a two-game scoreless streak Friday. Jake Bernhardt is 2-for-18 over the last three games.
All have played well for much of the season, and Maryland needs most (if not all) of them to offer effective play.
"In college lacrosse this year with most of the teams, if your best guys aren't playing well, it really hurts you," Tillman said. "You've invested a lot with those guys, they've been through the wars. They are your best guys. You hope that even if they don't have an A-game, they have a B-game and they're going to play well. We need our best guys to play well. We don't need them to be perfect, but we're hoping we get a good positive game."
It was a flustered Tillman who lingered after a postgame press conference. This particular loss was especially vexing considering both how flat Maryland played from the start and how much Virginia invited the Terps to stick around. Even after a clean first half, Maryland closed within 6-5 on a pair of extra-man goals late in the third quarter.
The Terps wouldn't score again until the final minute, its offense out of sync for most of the night.
"I don't think amongst our team it's a panic mode or a stress-out mode," Blye said. You have to look yourself in the mirror and decide what you can do to help your team."
Tillman is not a coach for knee-jerk reactions, and his patience with players was eventually rewarded during his first two Mays in College Park.
Yet with a three-week vanishing act on offense, this might be different. This could require a true reinvention on the fly, something beyond simply infusing some excitement that was strikingly absent Friday.
It's OK if Tillman decides Maryland will have to adopt its usual rugged persona to thrive in May. But the Terps will have to rediscover its offense soon as it reached an undeniable crossroads.
"This is not uncharted waters for us," Tillman said. "It's not where we want to be, but it's where we've been the last couple years when we've had a couple losses late and you've had to really looking at some things and redefine who we are, whether it's personnel, schemes or whatever it might be. I think we have to think about it."
--- Patrick Stevens