During the first nine games of the Maryland men's lacrosse team's season, a key member of its decorated senior class watched from the sidelines.
Defender Mac Pons, who started all 20 contests in 2016, suffered a lower-body injury late in the fall. But after weeks of rigorous training, he returned to the field April 12, playing a partial fourth year instead of redshirting.
That choice, which fortified No. 1 seed Maryland's defense entering its NCAA tournament quarterfinals bout against No. 8 seed Albany on Sunday, stemmed from a desire to graduate with a senior group that has notched a program-record 58 victories.
"One of the bigger things was graduating with the class I came in with," Pons said. "Just to go out with who I started with."
Pons said the senior unit is "close-knit" and felt it was important to contribute his final season in College Park. After the Terps failed to win the title the past three years despite making the Final Four each season, he wanted to help push for a national championship this campaign.
In particular, Pons said he's close to senior attackman Colin Heacock, the squad's fourth-leading goal scorer who attended Boys' Latin High School with him.
"We're kind of opposites," Pons said. "He's like the joker, and I'm more realistic, kind of bringing him back down a little bit. We get along pretty well."
While Pons sat out the beginning of the year, observing his best friends battle on the field, he remained upbeat and influenced the team by pushing younger players in practice.
"Mac was always positive," senior defensive midfielder Isaiah Davis-Allen said. "He was always a guy who would come around and help the younger guys out. He would always add his words of wisdom."
Though coach John Tillman said Maryland missed Pons' communication skills and ability to cover up mistakes, the Terps' defense was buoyed by the production of Bryce Young and Curtis Corley. The duo entered the year with a combined 40 appearances compared to Pons' 54, but guided Maryland to a 7-2 start without the veteran.
As Pons has worked his way back to full fitness, Young and Corley have continued to start.
"Thank god [Young and Corley] have come along because we've needed it," Tillman said. "If those guys hadn't stepped up, I'm pretty confident that we wouldn't still be playing."
Still, Maryland is grateful to have Pons back. Tillman said his experience has allowed the squad to field faceoffs with two long-stick players on the wings, something the Terps worked on in the fall but hadn't felt comfortable executing during games until his return.
He'll need to continue his impact against Albany this weekend for the Terps (13-3) to advance to their fourth consecutive Final Four.
The Great Danes (15-2) feature the No. 1 scoring offense in the nation as well as the No. 2 faceoff unit. Attackman Connor Fields ranks first in the country with 6.65 points per game.
In Maryland's 12-11 win over Albany in April, Fields recorded eight points, a fact Davis-Allen acknowledged the Terps must address before their quarterfinals showdown.
"We saw first-hand how terrific [Fields] is," Tillman said. "He's developed into an outstanding player. He's a handful. Obviously he had a good game the first time against us, so we have to look at some options and figure out what we want to do."
With Pons back in the rotation, though, Maryland has gained confidence in its ability to handle a prolific attack spearheaded by one of the country's most dangerous playmakers. In addition to Pons' on-field abilities, Davis-Allen said, the Terps gain assurance from the veteran's calm leadership.
"[Pons] has been huge for us," Tillman added. "His return has been very, very important."