At each practice, before the Maryland field hockey team stretches or runs drills, the Terrapins take a few minutes to engage in what Coach Missy Meharg calls "clearing your mind." The process includes meditation, breathing exercises and other mental preparation techniques.

"It's very simple," Meharg said. "How many great athletes can start a practice without stretching? How many athletes come to practice after a hectic schedule, or a class? All we do is sit down and clear our minds."

It's just one of the routines performed by Maryland, currently ranked No. 1 by the National Field Hockey Coaches Association, to maintain what Meharg describes as "a certain energy and force." So far this season, that force has helped the Terrapins win their second straight Atlantic Coast Conference championship. Next is the 16-team NCAA tournament, in which they play Lafayette (19-1) Saturday at AstroTurf Field in College Park.

Maryland has a 20-1 record, with the only loss coming in the third game of the season to Old Dominion. The Terps avenged that loss by defeating the Monarchs on Oct. 17. So Maryland enters the tournament as the favorite to capture its first national title since 1993, although the team has a fresh memory of losing to Virginia in the first round of last year's tournament.

"I think overall the team has matured a lot," said junior midfielder Keli Smith, who has 11 goals and 16 assists this season. "We were young last year, and everything was kind of new to us. After we won the ACC tournament last year, it was hard to come off that high and focus again."

"Last year, after winning the ACCs we were already talking about going to the final four," sophomore forward Caroline Walter said. "This year, we're really taking it game by game."

Mental focus may be a key aspect of the Terrapins' success, but so are outright skill and experience. Walter, a native of Germany, was selected as the ACC player of the year after collecting 23 goals and nine assists. Junior midfielder Carla Tagliente, an all-American last year, is third on Maryland's career goals-scored list and fourth on the points list.

Tagliente also played on the U.S. national team last summer at the Pan American Games, while six Terrapins played for the U.S. under-20 team last summer, including Smith, who was a captain. Walter played for the German under-21 team in 1997 and junior midfielder Rachel Hiskins played for the Victoria (Australia) under-21 team in 1998.

"It's a diverse group," Tagliente said. "Everyone brings their own little part to the team. That's what kind of makes us good."

Meharg developed her theory on mental preparation following a stint as an assistant coach for the 1996 U.S. Olympic team. One of the team members gave her a book by author Jerry Lynch called "Thinking Body, Dancing Mind." Meharg called Lynch, who runs a sports psychology firm in California, and invited him to speak to the team. Since last season Lynch has served as a team consultant whose biography in the team's media guide states that "Lynch's psychological expertise was a focal point for the Terps' drive to the [1998] ACC crown." Lynch also works with the Maryland women's lacrosse program, which has won the last five national championships.

He has spoken to the team a couple of times each semester and offered the players tips on mental techniques that other athletes use to gain focus.

"I think each player uses Jerry's techniques differently in the game," Smith said. "I use more visualization, and kind of think to myself how I want to do in the game."

FIELD HOCKEY NCAA Tournament

First and Second Rounds

Where: Maryland's AstroTurf Field.

Saturday's First-Round Games

No. 1 seed Maryland (20-1) vs. Lafayette (19-1), 11 a.m.

Virginia (13-7) vs. Old Dominion (16-6), 1:30 p.m.

Sunday's Second-Round Game

Saturday's winners, 2 p.m.

Note: Second-round winner advances to final four, Nov. 19 and 21 in Boston.

CAPTION: Sports psychologist Jerry Lynch inspired the top-ranked Maryland field hockey team's meditation regimen that precedes each practice.