Sue Tyler, coach of the University of Maryland women's lacrosse team, used to come home after preseason practice and worry, frustrated because her squad wasn't as skillful as some of her previous teams.
The players had their doubts, too, especially after "the William and Mary and Harvard fiascoes," as defender Tracey Stumpf called those games. Those one-point defeats dropped the Terrapins' record to 5-4.
"At the beginning of the year, we said we wanted to do it, but it was too far away," said Stumpf of the NCAA championship. After the Harvard game, she said the team was thinking, "No way."
But over the next nine games, something clicked for the fifth-ranked Terrapins (14-4). They won every one and find themselves in Saturday's NCAA championship game at Byrd Stadium against top-ranked Penn State, a team they caught by surprise and defeated, 11-6, at the beginning of their winning streak.
"Just hustle," Stumpf said, describing how her team beat the Nittany Lions the first time in a game most of the Terrapins felt was the turning point of the season. "If you could have seen that game, it looked like we were always a step ahead of them. I don't think they thought we were going to be as good as we were. We kind of took them by surprise. Now they know."
What the Nittany Lions probably did not realize was that the Terrapins were seeking goals from every player. Last year, Maryland relied on two main scorers -- Kay Ruffino and Karen Trudel. The problem early this season was that the Terrapins were trying the same thing, only it didn't work with this team.
"I'm not sure we would have been in the tournament had we not beaten Penn State ," said Tyler, who would have missed the postseason playoffs for the first time in eight years.
Five players -- Anysia Fedec, Wendy Heald, Kaaren Ruth, Carin Peterson and Wendy Beer -- have scored at least 20 goals each.
"This year, the other team can't key on anybody because there is no one player to key on," said Tyler. "If they key on whoever, we can still do it. If Anysia is double-teamed, she'll just take her double-team somewhere, and there's got to be somebody free."
If there is one player Penn State is likely to double-team Saturday, it is Fedec, a junior. She has 50 goals and 25 assists, including four goals in the first half of Maryland's 12-7 victory Sunday in the semifinals at Virginia.
Tyler can't easily describe Fedec's style: "She can go right or left, and nobody knows whether she's right- or left-handed. I'm not even sure whether she knows whether she's right- or left-handed. She can shoot off either shoulder. She can release the ball anywhere.
"She can almost score at will if there aren't five people on her."
Saturday, the Terrapins will be facing a Penn State team that passes perhaps better than any other in the country. And the Nittany Lions have scores to settle, including a triple-overtime loss to Maryland last year in the NCAA semifinals.
The Terrapins also will be playing for only the second time this season at Byrd Stadium (they normally play on an auxiliary field), where they had problems adjusting in an 11-7 quarterfinal victory over Northwestern.
"Old hat," Stumpf said, shrugging her shoulders. "Hey, no problem. It'll be fun. No one can handle the noise level. Yeah, all 50 fans."