ON HIS TERMS
In Maryland lacrosse coach John Tillman’s office is a photo of his first game in College Park against Johns Hopkins. A sizable crowd is intently watching the sport’s greatest rivalry unfold yet again. There wasn’t a specific impetus to pick it out originally, only that it would look good on the wall.
In time, it would become the first of many links to perhaps the defining player to date of Tillman’s seven-year run.
One day, Tillman noticed a familiar face sitting in the middle of the bleachers of that 2011. It was a high school sophomore named Isaiah Davis-Allen, a two-time captain who has helped Maryland reach Sunday’s NCAA quarterfinal against Albany in Newark, Del.
A lot has happened since Davis-Allen and his father ended up in the midst of a photographer’s crowd shot six years ago.
“That game may have been the second or third college game I’ve ever watched,” Davis-Allen said. “It was a rainy day and it was Maryland versus Hopkins, and I remember my first thought was ‘Man, I don’t know if I can play at this level,’ just watching guys that big flying around.”
Well, Davis-Allen can play at this level. The short stick defensive midfielder was a USILA first team All-America pick last season last season and was just selected as a first team All-American by Inside Lacrosse.
But befitting a man playing a position often overlooked by a casual fan, Davis-Allen’s greatest contributions go far beyond numbers.
In many ways, he’s a reflection of his coach --- low-key, uninterested in excuses and almost always deflecting praise elsewhere. It’s a partnership forged on a personal level over the last four years, and one that has helped hold the Terps together throughout that time.
“This guy’s just different, with the way he’s wired and what he brings to the table,” Tillman said. “The way he looks at things, the way he invests, what he gives --- it just takes things to an extra level.”
At A Glance
2x Team Captain (2017, 2016)
2017 Second Team All-Big Ten
2017 Tewaaraton Award Watch List (Top-50)
2017 Senior CLASS Award Finalist (Top-10)
2016 USILA First Team All-America
2016 Lacrosse Magazine First Team All-America
2016 First Team All-Big Ten
2016 NCAA All-Tournament Team
Even if Davis-Allen hadn’t turned into a central figure for the Terps, he would always provide Tillman with arguably his most hilarious recruiting commitment.
Davis-Allen, who grew up in Alexandria, Va., and helped lead St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes to three state titles in lacrosse, was making his second recruiting visit to Maryland. As he and his parents sat in Tillman’s office, Davis-Allen directly stated his intentions.
“He liked St. Stephen’s/St. Agnes, but when he walked around Maryland, which is a diverse school, he really liked it,” Tillman said. “I remember him going ‘You guys picked high school. I’m picking college and I want to go here.’ I’m in the office and I’m like ‘If you guys want to talk, I’ll step out. I don’t want to get in the middle here.’”
The details are slightly different in Davis-Allen’s account --- he said he was coming while Tillman was in the middle of a PowerPoint presentation, and that his father eventually nodded off after Tillman continued the slideshow anyway --- but the central story was accurate.
Maryland was where Davis-Allen wanted to be for four years.
“I think it just felt right,” Davis-Allen said. “I had a few friends who were here at the time, and just talking with the coaches and taking a ride around campus and seeing the type of people who come here, I said ‘This is a special place.’”
It needed to be. Late in his senior year of high school, his mother Audrey Davis died from cancer. He would lead another state title run in the days that followed, with Tillman attending as many games as he could and checking in often.
The experience accelerated a bond that remains to this day. And when Davis-Allen arrived on campus in the fall, he threw himself into the predictable rhythms of a day-to-day routine.
“For me, it was trying to find that balance early on,” Davis-Allen said. “The role this program played in that, it was just super-stable. Everything we did every day was the exact same. What was expected of me was the exact same, almost down to the hour. For me, I dove right in and it fit me perfectly. I knew when I was here, I knew what to expect and what was expected of me.”
The schedule coupled with geography helped make it all work. Davis-Allen’s biggest priority in the years that followed was making sure he was as much of a presence as possible for his younger sister Josephine, who is now a high school senior.
“I think he grew up a lot faster with what happened with his mom,” Tillman said. “His first instinct was ‘I have to look out for my sister.’ In a day and age where everyone is looking out for ‘What do I want,’ I think Isaiah was like ‘I have to take care of her, I have to look out for my family.’ … It’s almost like he took on a parent role.”
He had help, particularly from his aunt Claire. (“She’s 4-10, a real small woman, but she has that glare and she has a sharp tongue,” Davis-Allen said. “If I’m not dressed right or I don’t have a haircut or if I don’t speak well, she’s going to let me know.”) She’s remained a substantial influence in his life in the years since his mother’s death.
In many ways, though, she long ago left an imprint on her nephew that has served him well at Maryland.
“My aunt and my mom both raised me on tough love. Growing up, some kids will get presents for getting good grades or playing well,” Davis-Allen said. “In my household, it was ‘Well, you’re supposed to get good grades. You’re supposed to play well, so I don’t know why I would give you a gift for something you were supposed to do.’ That’s an instance where [Tillman] and I see eye to eye.”
At the same time, Davis-Allen has an eye out for helping anyone as much as possible. When he was a child, he wouldn’t receive birthday presents; instead, he would select a charity and his parents would send a donation.
Today, he helps out with the Prince George’s Pride Lacrosse Club, and is also deeply involved in the Terps’ work with Fionn Crimmins, a 6-year-old cancer patient who has spent time around the program the last two seasons as part of an association with Team IMPACT.
Then there’s his place as a person who sets an example on and off the field for a team that is the No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament for the second consecutive year.
“He looks after every guy,” senior attackman Matt Rambo said. “He’s our main captain. We have four of them, but he’s been there since junior year. He’s just always doing the right thing all the time. He’s always in shape. He’s always playing hard. He just plays like a Terp all the time.”
How else might his teammates describe him?
Davis-Allen offers two words: Brutally honest.
That took some getting used to when he first joined the program, and some of his own maturation has stemmed from figuring out how to channel that trait effectively and tailor a different approach to different people.
“I couldn’t really understand how people could be super-sensitive about that stuff, but now I definitely get it,” Davis-Allen said. “That’s probably the first thing people would say about me. I’ll definitely say something no one else would say. It goes both ways.”
He’s become a vital conduit between the coaching staff and the roster in the latter half of his career, helping to keep everyone attuned throughout the ups and downs of a season.
“His communication skills throughout the team are really great, and that’s what I admire about him being the captain and being the leader --- how well he communicates with us,” Rambo said. “It’s not just communicating, it’s how he does it. You know when he’s angry and there’s urgency and you know when he’s happy. You always know it’s business time when you’re on the field.”
It’s an especially valuable trait for Tillman, who often speaks of molding players into good decision-makers as they come through the program. Sometimes, the best way to do that is through peer reinforcement.
Davis-Allen brings two traits that are especially helpful to ensuring the Terps are maximizing their resources: Candor and responsibility.
“I don’t see him like a 21-year-old, so there are times where he will say ‘Coach, we can go harder,’ or ‘I think it would be good to back off or the guys need rest,’ and I know he’s not cutting corners,” Tillman said. “He’s not taking the path of least resistance whereas some guys might say ‘Oh, yeah, we need a day off.’”
That could lead to a tough balancing act for some people. In Davis-Allen’s case, he has found a way to maintain a healthy respect from both Tillman and his teammates.
“I think the standard that’s been left here from previous seniors also plays a big part of it,” he said. “Coach Tillman can think the world of me, but if my teammates don’t, then it doesn’t really work. I think a lot of it was earning your teammates’ trust, showing them your work ethic to build trust. That helps out because me and coach Tillman see eye to eye on a lot of stuff and having the trust of my teammates really balances itself out.”
No more than three games remain in Davis-Allen’s college career. What’s next isn’t certain. His sister will play soccer at DeSales University in eastern Pennsylvania. Much like the last few years, there’s a tug to remain within driving distance, and Davis-Allen said family will play a role in what he ultimately pursues in the coming years.
To his coach, there are two certainties about a man who is arguably Maryland’s most valuable player.
“Whatever he decides to do,” Tillman said, “He will do very well. And it’ll be on his terms.”