By Jon Brand
Friday, October 23, 2009
Maryland junior forward Katie O'Donnell was walking on campus earlier this year when a fellow student stopped to ask her about the provenance of a silver ring adorning her finger.
"Oh, wow, is that a class ring?" her friend asked.
"No, actually it's for winning the national championship last year," O'Donnell said.
"Oh yeah," the friend said, "you guys are good, right?"
This is a customary exchange for the 23 members of Maryland's field hockey team, who, despite being one of the most dominant collegiate sports programs in the country, live in relative anonymity in College Park.
The Terrapins have won three of the last four NCAA championships and have lost just seven games since 2006, and their six national titles are second only to the women's lacrosse team, with whom they share a facility, as the most of any Maryland athletic program.
This season, they've retained the magic from a year ago, when they went 22-2 and beat Wake Forest in the NCAA championship game. The Terrapins have started this season 16-0 -- tied with the 2007 squad for the best start in program history -- and have been ranked No. 1 since the season started in August. Their last loss came more than a year ago, a 3-2 defeat at home to Duke.
Led by O'Donnell, the country's second-leading points scorer, senior forward Nicole Muracco and freshman midfielder Megan Frazer on offense, Maryland has outscored its opponents 80-17. The Terrapins visit No. 2 North Carolina (15-0) on Saturday, with the top seed in the ACC tournament on the line.
The defense has been typically stellar, with senior back Emma Thomas, a native of England, and senior goalie Alicia Grater leading the way.
But at the heart of the team's success is Coach Missy Meharg, a former U.S. international player who was inducted into the Maryland Athletics Hall of Fame in October. Through a combination of top recruiting and progressive coaching philosophies, Meharg has carefully cultivated a culture of winning over 22 years in charge of the program.
She has drawn on her experience as an assistant in the late '80s under former Maryland coach Sue Tyler, encouraging domestic players to compete at the international level -- 40 of her current and former players have played for the U.S. national team -- and recruiting overseas, where the men's and women's version of the game thrives.
There are four non-Americans on the roster this season, including Thomas, who transferred in 2008 from the University of Bath in England.
"International players are good for our game because there's a different level of appreciation for the sport there," Meharg said. "There are so many people playing [internationally] and it's a unique way to shift our own thinking about the sport."
But Meharg has implemented her own wrinkles as well, learning over the years to allow her players more creative freedoms on and off the field.
In the Terrapins' 3-0 win over ACC rival Duke on Oct. 10, the midfielders were getting double-teamed in the first half, so senior midfielder Alexis Pappas suggested at halftime that Maryland shift personnel on attacking plays to surprise the defense.
In the second half, the Terrapins used Pappas's remedy and scored two goals to put the game away.
"She does a great job of letting us make suggestions given we're people on the field," Thomas said. "She lets us figure it out ourselves."
Meharg has also drawn on technological advances, such as video analysis, to improve her squad.
Five years ago, she hired Tjerk van Herwaarden, a Dutch national who also works with the U.S. men's national team, as the team's technical director. Part of van Herwaarden's weekly schedule is spent editing video from previous games and pulling out specific situations in which the team is executing well or needs to improve. He also uses time before each practice to work individually with players on their swing technique -- where the ball is being struck, how fast they're swinging and where to place shots.
"It's those little details that help take us above and beyond the other programs," O'Donnell said. "I don't think other coaches would take up their time for individual work like this during the season."
Meharg's model of development has paid off this year, as the Terrapins have won every game by at least two goals except for a 3-2 overtime win against Princeton on Oct. 7.
"The Princeton game was something we needed to feel, though," Grater said. "We scored in OT and everyone rushed the field. . . . We needed to have someone on our backs pushing us and be able to come out on top."
After defeating regional rivals Old Dominion and Delaware last weekend, Maryland's trip to North Carolina this weekend will be a chance to expel old demons. The Terrapins saw their 16-game winning streak snapped two years ago in Chapel Hill, and they lost three of their last five games that season.
"That feeling in '07 was absolutely terrible and I don't want to feel it again," O'Donnell said.