As Maryland defender Chris Lancos sat down for Saturday afternoon's College Cup news conference, he wore headphones, carried a soft drink from a delicatessen chain and joked about the free publicity he was offering that restaurant. At the other end of the table, Maryland Coach Sasho Cirovski shook his head and smiled.
"The modern college player," Cirovski said with a laugh.
Twenty-four hours before Maryland's first appearance in an NCAA final since 1968 -- when it shared its only national championship with Michigan State, the top-seeded Terps appeared to be thoroughly at ease. After losing in the national semifinals three years in a row, players said they entered this year's College Cup with a more relaxed attitude, paying less attention to the hoopla that surrounds college soccer's final weekend.
That attitude, they said, helped lead to Friday night's resounding 4-1 victory over Southern Methodist, which set up Sunday's championship matchup with second-seeded New Mexico.
"I think a lot of people, including myself, kind of got caught up in the stage a little bit: you know, the ESPN, the banquet, all the media attention," Lancos said. "We've treated the final four as this big animal in the past, that we needed to overcome. And this year we treated it just like two more games."
This time, the Lobos (18-1-3) are the untested newcomers, making their first appearance in the College Cup. They struggled early in their semifinal victory over Clemson, taking just two first-half shots, but Andrew Boyens's header in the 63rd minute broke a 1-1 tie and extended New Mexico's season.
"I think the first 10, 15 minutes we were a bit nervous and just trying to get our feet wet, trying to feel things out," said New Mexico forward Jeff Rowland, one of three finalists for the Hermann Trophy, honoring college soccer's most outstanding player. "I think everyone was just a bit nervous, just because it was our first game here."
The Terps (18-4-2) have had plenty of time to banish such feelings. They are used to the venue, having played 12 games in Cary's SAS Soccer Complex over the past four years. They are used to the competition; this season alone, Maryland faced 14 nationally-ranked opponents. And, of course, they are used to the stage, thanks to three consecutive trips to the final four.
During Maryland's 2002 College Cup appearance, "I just remember being in shock," said senior forward Jason Garey, another Hermann Trophy finalist. "You just get really nervous, just like any other person would. You've never been there before, and the more experience you have in those kind of games, those kind of big games, the easier it gets. Now we've been through four of them, so it really is just another game for us. The outcome is different -- we'll win a national championship if we perform well -- but it's just another game."
Such nonchalance explains Maryland's relaxed warmup Friday afternoon, which players said contrasted with more frenetic pregame sessions in past College Cups. It explains why Cirovski kept the ESPN cameras out of the locker room this year, in an attempt to preserve the typical pregame atmosphere. It also helps explain the Terps' four-goal explosion against SMU; in their three previous semifinals, they had scored a total of three goals.
"I'd say that the difference in the game today, when I look back at it, was you had a team with Maryland that was very experienced," SMU Coach Schellas Hyndman said Friday night. "They played with much more confidence."
New Mexico had never been past the round of 16 before this season, and failed even to qualify for the NCAA tournament two years ago. But fourth-year coach Jeremy Fishbein suggested the Terps could be damaged by their more extensive tradition.
"They're used to it, but then it's also a different kind of pressure they're putting on themselves," Fishbein said. "There's kind of a monkey on their back."
Before engaging in a round of playful bear hugs outside the stadium Saturday afternoon, the Terps strongly disagreed.
"It's weird . . . but I felt less pressure this year than any year in the past," senior back Michael Dello-Russo said. "We just want to win a game. That's the mentality we've been taking."