Midfield Mainstay Bubba Fairman Thriving as SSDM for Unbeaten Maryland

PHOTO BY JOHN STROHSACKER


Bubba Fairman started every game in his first four seasons at Maryland.

This year, the midfield mainstay started over — and found a new role as the Terrapins have plowed through their first 15 games.

Yes, that’s Fairman playing defensive midfield. And no, he doesn’t think it’s a particularly big deal that he finds himself at lacrosse’s most unsung position after earning third-team All-America honors in 2019 and an honorable mention nod last year.

But there’s little doubt he’s bolstered the top-seeded Terps (15-0), who face Virginia (12-3) in an NCAA quarterfinal Sunday in Columbus, Ohio.

“He’s strong, he’s athletic, he’s aggressive, he’s dialed in,” coach John Tillman said. “He’s having fun with it. This is not a demotion. This is kind of like a challenge for him, which has been great for our team. I can point to the younger guys and say, ‘You want to see what a Maryland guy is? Here’s Bubba Fairman.’”

It’s a season Fairman didn’t fully commit to until a month or so before the fall semester started. He had a bonus year of eligibility thanks to the NCAA’s blanket waiver for everyone who saw their 2020 season cut short by the pandemic and took his time with a decision.

It was understandable. The 2021 season, with its COVID-19 restrictions and testing, wore on most players. But by late July or early August, Fairman was ready to pack up his car and make the drive of 30-plus hours from Utah one more time.

By the time fall practice started, it was clear Maryland was deeper on offense even without 2021 Tewaaraton Award winner Jared Bernhardt. Jonathan Donville (Cornell), Keegan Khan (Villanova) and Owen Murphy (Johns Hopkins) had arrived as transfers. Eric Malever was ready to contend for a starting spot as a sophomore. Junior Jack Brennan was healthy, and sophomore Jack Koras was prepared for a bigger role.

Meanwhile, Maryland was down a regular at short stick after Josh Coffman was lost for the year due to injury. So Fairman approached Tillman and offered to head to the other end of the field.

“We have so many talented guys on offense,” Fairman said. “I don’t think I was needed at that position as much as I would be needed at the defense position, especially early in the season.”

It also meant there was plenty to pick up. Fairman remembers being prodded as a freshman by Tim Rotanz and Connor Kelly to go learn how to play defense, which provided a baseline understanding he’s grateful for now. In the ensuing years, he would stay on for defense in unsettled situations but was hardly an entrenched short stick like fellow fifth-year Roman Puglise.

There were two things Maryland knew he would deliver, because they are Fairman hallmarks: Effort and enthusiasm. Both have been on display throughout the year as he’s rotated with Puglise, Jake Higgins and Alex Smith.

“He might not always be perfect technique-wise or system-wise, but if you just go and compete and play as hard as you can, the result will be pretty good,” Donville said. “I think he’s a good example for our young guys on both of those things where he’s still learning a lot at the defensive end, but when he goes out there, he tries and competes as hard as he can and he makes tough plays. I almost think that’s the most important lesson [more than being willing to switch positions].”







Then there are the delightfully unexpected developments. Fairman’s expanded game meant he possessed even greater versatility, a coveted asset in a pro game with limited roster size. The Cannons selected him with the No. 11 overall pick in the second round of last week’s PLL draft.

Yet at an even more basic level, Fairman’s found a joy stemming from learning how to do something new, something of a fresh start but still in a familiar place.

“I think this year has been interesting in a lot of ways, but it’s also allowed me to find a new passion for lacrosse on a new side of the field,” Fairman said. “It’s kind of fun to go back to the very fundamentals of lacrosse and learn it at a new position. Focusing on the little things every single day that I never knew were important to playing defense, but really make or break the defense. Allowing myself to be a beginner again has been fun to me.”

He’s also thrived in a way that’s added considerable value to Maryland’s unbeaten run to this point. Fairman’s athleticism has translated well.

“People talk about his willingness to go back there, which is true and it’s a great story,” Donville said. “But I think people are looking past how well he’s playing the position, too. That’s been huge for us. He hasn’t just plugged the hole. He’s plugged it and is playing really, really well for us.”

One other bonus to the move is enhancing Maryland’s ability to ignite transition. These Terps have done so better than their predecessors under Tillman, with the 23-12 rout of Virginia on March 19 demonstrating how well Maryland can fare even against an opponent whose identity is rooted in thriving on chaos.

Fairman has three goals and three assists this year, hardly eye-popping numbers like his 25 goals and 17 assists as a sophomore in 2019. But he’s still the guy who ranks 36th in career points for the storied program, only now with an expanded skillset.

Still, ask Fairman for his favorite moments, and he’s quick to note the pleasure derived from helping make a defensive stop.

“I still think I’m a beginner and it’s all new to me, so if I can help the defense, because that’s my group, that almost means more to me,” Fairman said. “Of course, everyone loves transition. I can’t lie there.”

Fairman was an integral part of coaxing the Terps through the inherent difficulties of the pandemic protocols, and Tillman leaned on him to help ensure the team was making good decisions that wouldn’t sidetrack a season that ultimately ended with a Memorial Day loss to Virginia.

Those responsibilities aren’t surprising for Fairman, who also has helped organize a fundraiser for the Hope Street Foundation twice during his time as a Terp. Every player or coach who got his head shaved generated $1,000 for cancer research; Maryland raised $48,000 two years ago and another $27,000 this spring.

On the field, of course, he’s delivered a boost every bit as impressive in his final college season.

“I do think playing defense for him has kind of given him purpose,” Tillman said. “It’s like, ‘I’m here to help the team. We lost a couple guys, and I’m really giving value to this team,’ which he certainly did. But as an athlete, it’s almost like why people do marathons — to prove you can do it.”

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