Maryland hasn’t reached the Final Four since winning the national championship in 2008. The last time Maryland went at least four seasons without a national semifinal showing was 1997, the fifth year of Cirovski’s reconstruction project in College Park.
“We’re contenders every year, but if we don’t bring home at least one championship this year, whether it’s the ACC or national championship, this will be a failure,” said Cirovski, whose team returns eight starters and was selected by ACC coaches to finish first. “This team has enough hurt from the last couple of years to really stay tuned-in until the end and finish strong.”
Ranked No. 3 behind Connecticut and Akron in Soccer America’s preseason poll, the Terrapins will open at home Sunday against 16th-ranked Louisville before welcoming No. 8 UCLA and California next weekend.
Since winning the 2008 title, their second crown in a four-year span, the Terrapins have lost to Virginia and Michigan in the quarterfinals and Louisville in the round of 16. The latter two defeats came at Ludwig Field, where Maryland has been otherwise almost invincible for three years (33-4-1).
“We’ve been so close, it makes us all hungry,” said senior midfielder John Stertzer, a Flint Hill graduate and the team’s leading returning scorer after recording 14 goals last fall. “It’s a huge chip on our shoulders. We’re going to come out and show how much we want it.”
All three eliminations since 2008 have come while surrendering at least three goals, noted Cirovski, who has placed greater emphasis on defending. Two of the four starters are seniors with professional futures, left back Taylor Kemp and center back London Woodberry.
Goalkeeping is a question, however, with two sophomores and a freshman in the running. Cirovski said he plans to rotate starters for much of the season before settling on his first choice. Keith Cardona (four starts in 2011) and fellow sophomore Jordan Tatum are the favorites.
“Our team defending has to become better and our overall mentality to close out not only games, but close out the season has to be better,” said Cirovski, whose squad began 11-0-1 last year before finishing in a 3-4-2 rut. “We have the [overall] experience now and the leadership in place.”
With Stertzer, MLS-caliber junior Patrick Mullins and assists leader Sunny Jane, Maryland has the firepower to again be among the nation’s top-scoring teams. The attack has been bolstered by freshman Schillo Tshuma, The Post’s All-Met Player of the Year at Episcopal last fall. He is from Zimbabwe and has international ambitions.
“This team is very connected, and that comfort level makes a big difference in big games in key moments,” said Kemp, who weighed MLS options last winter. “It will be a real strength of ours — the connection, the communication, the trust.”
The Maryland women’s team was picked seventh in the ACC, which, like the men’s league, is considered the most competitive in the country. Entering Sunday’s match at Ohio State, the Terrapins are 1-0-1 and ranked No. 25 by Soccer America.
Jonathan Morgan, a five-year assistant, was promoted to the head job after Brian Pensky left for a richer contract and better facilities at Tennessee.