Jay Carlson, left, and Michael Ehrhardt are two of the 12 players on the Whipsnakes Lacrosse Club that played at the University of Maryland. Credit: Premier Lacrosse League

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When the Whipsnakes Lacrosse Club steps on to Audi Field on Sept. 19 to compete for its third straight Premier Lacrosse League Championship against the Chaos Lacrosse Club, it will do so less than 15 miles from the University of Maryland, where 12 of the team’s current players played college lacrosse. The PLL title game will be a homecoming of sorts for many former Terrapins, including Jay Carlson, a native of Baltimore who played for Maryland from 2012 to 2015.

“Both sides of the family are coming; a lot of cousins, a lot of aunts and uncles, and a lot of Maryland friends,” Carlson says. “It’s great to have family and friends be able to watch in person, especially since COVID prevented us from having fans [in 2020].”

In addition to players’ family and friends, Maryland men’s lacrosse head coach John Tillman will also be attending along with more than 40 current Maryland lacrosse players.

“The brotherhood at Maryland is really important. Our alumni do a lot for our guys in terms of providing guidance and mentorship. So, we feel that it’s important to support them in the same way they support us,” Tillman says.

The Whipsnakes’ strong bond to the University of Maryland is no coincidence. When PLL was formed in 2019, the competition committee, which was responsible for creating the rosters for each of the inaugural six teams not based in any region or city, established the teams with players’ college ties in mind. No team had a stronger college connection than the Whipsnakes, whose initial 27-man roster featured 20 former Terps when the team was first announced. In its first year, that team went 6-4 in the regular season and won the league’s first ever championship in a dramatic overtime victory, thanks to former Terp Matt Rambo’s game-tying and game-winning goals.

Despite winning the title in the team’s first year, the 2019 PLL Championship was a long time coming for many former Terps on the Whipsnakes’ roster. The history of Maryland men’s lacrosse up until 2017 is a stark contrast to the Whipsnakes’ inaugural season success. The program has made 34 NCAA tournament appearances and played in nine championships since their 1975 NCAA Championship win, but failed to bring home the trophy during that span. That misfortune only finally changed in 2017 when Tillman, along with current Whipsnakes players Rambo, Tim Muller, and Bryce Young, won the program’s first NCAA title in more than 41 years.

“I lost two national championships, one my freshman year and one my senior year,” Carlson says. “So most guys in that Whipsnakes locker room had lost the national championship and it provided all of us with a lot of motivation to compete for that first PLL championship.”

For many, the 2019 title was their first championship at either the college or professional level and filled the void left from their college careers. Doing it with so many of their college teammates made it all the more special.

“My first few years [at Maryland], we lost the national championship. You never know if you’re ever going to get back to those games,” Whipsnakes long-stick midfielder Michael Ehrhardt says. “It was special to win [the PLL championship] that first year.”

The Whipsnakes followed up that title with another PLL championship in 2020, in large part thanks to the presence of so many Maryland alums, and have now positioned themselves to win their third straight title on Sunday. While several former Terrapins have departed via expansion drafts, roster cuts, and retirement since the team’s first championship, the team’s core nucleus of Terrapins has remained intact. They have even added a couple more Maryland alums this season. One of those former Terps is 2010 graduate Brian Phipps

Phipps, a 10-year veteran in professional lacrosse, joined PLL following the merger between the PLL and the previous professional field lacrosse league, Major League Lacrosse, this past offseason. Phipps, who had cemented himself as a starter in the MLL and helped lead the Annapolis-based Bayhawks to a championship in 2019, had to once again compete for a roster spot. Phipps earned an invite to training camp with Redwoods Lacrosse Club, but was eventually released to the player pool after a few weeks of being inactive.

“I was just waiting to see what would happen. Selfishly, when the PLL and MLL were merging, I wanted to be a Whipsnake,” Phipps says. “Luckily, the Whipsnakes were the ones that actually got the waiver claim in to get me.”

Whipsnakes head coach Jim Stagnitta picked Phipps off waivers, originally to serve as a backup to his two-time PLL champion goalie and another Maryland alum, Kyle Bernlohr. However, when Bernlohr continued to struggle during the second half of the season, Stagnitta and Bernlohr both decided it was best for Phipps to start in the Whipsnakes’ semifinal matchup.

“Honestly, Kyle called me and said that he thought I should start and that the team was rallying around me,” Phipps says. “Kyle and I have a great relationship and we support each other. So when my name was called, I was ready to go.”

Phipps made 13 saves in his first start of the season and helped propel the Whipsnakes to a 14-10 victory and their third straight appearance in the PLL finals. 

“When Brian played at [Maryland], there were periods when he shared time with another goalie.  And he did it so unselfishly,” says Tillman, who hired Phipps as an assistant coach when taking over the program in 2011. “Now, after putting the team’s goals first, he has an opportunity to start and lead his fellow Maryland guys … And Kyle Bernlohr has also handled this so well and supported Brian, just like how Brian supported Kyle when coaching him [during his college career]. At Maryland, those guys always knew it was about what’s best for the team, and now they do the same thing in the pros with the Whipsnakes.”

The Maryland players past and present have emulated the program’s motto, “Be the Best,” a phrase coined by former Maryland head coach Bud Beardmore, who led the Terrapins to two NCAA championships in 1973 and 1975.

“When you go to College Park, you are surrounded by this crew of great guys that are all centered around the same goals and aspirations,” Phipps, whose brother, father, and grandfather also attended Maryland, explains. 

The brotherhood that Tillman and coaches before him have been able to maintain is a large reason why more than 80 Terps have played professional field lacrosse since its inception in 2001. While the Whipsnakes have the largest number of former Maryland players, three of the other seven PLL teams also feature multiple Terps on their roster. Maryland also currently boasts the most alumni in professional field lacrosse with 19 active pros.

“We have a brotherhood at Maryland. It is more than just a friendship. It’s a special bond,” Rambo says.