The Maryland women’s lacrosse team froze in place during practice Wednesday morning as the countdown began. “There are 10 seconds left,” Coach Cathy Reese shouted from the sideline. Goalie Kasey Howard had just preserved a tie game with a huge save, Reese explained. “What are we going to do about it?”
Then suddenly, movement and chaos. Reese’s countdown reached six when the ball squirted out of bounds on an errant pass. “Tweet,” she said, whistling the play dead. “Pick it up from there.” Five . . . four . . . “Oh, Alex,” Reese cautioned midfielder Alex Aust, the team’s leading scorer, “you better run fast.” Three seconds later, Aust had moved 30 yards to wind up for the mock game-winner. “Onnnneee,” Reese swooned. Goal.
The Terrapins have scored at will this spring, a blistering 319 times in all. They’re 21-0 and ranked first nationally entering Friday’s NCAA tournament semifinal matchup against fourth-seeded Syracuse. It will be Maryland’s fifth straight appearance in the Final Four. So really, was there any doubt Maryland would succeed in simulated crunch time?
“We’re at the point in the season where, you know what, we’re not going to learn anything that’s going to be life-changing before Friday,” Reese said. “We just want to get out, get a good workout in, keep everyone healthy and handle the pressure. We’re going to play against a very talented team on Friday night. They’re good. They’re tough. I know they’re going to come out fighting. I just want our girls to be ready. I want them to enjoy the experience.”
Even though they are two wins from a 12th national title, it would be difficult to crown these Terps the program’s greatest. But they’re certainly close. Only the 2001 and 1999 editions finished undefeated with at least 20 wins. Twelve of Maryland’s 21 wins this season have come against nationally ranked opponents, and six were against the top 10, including a 19-11 triumph over the Orange on Feb. 17.
Maryland hasn’t missed the NCAA semifinals since 2008, and by now the Final Four is an expected destination, with the last practice before the team’s departure a light-hearted affair. The players smiled and laughed after goals Wednesday. During water breaks, they debated the spelling of Massachusetts and Mississippi, while Reese called a Chinese restaurant trying to preorder green beans and lettuce wraps for the group of 42 that will travel to Villanova, Pa., for Friday’s game.
“They’ve had the experience of competing for a championship,” Reese said. “They’ve been in the mix. I also have people who have stepped up at each position and are leading the way. They’re taking charge with it. It’s just been fun. It sounds so cheesy to say it, but it’s just been fun this year.”
Successful teams typically laud their closeness, and these Terps are no exception. Most of the upperclassmen live in three unofficial team houses, spread out along the southeastern edge of campus. “I have like 33 sisters, basically,” said Aust, one of five finalists for the Tewaaraton Award, given to the nation’s top player. “You’re living together. You’re going through ups and downs with each other. It definitely helps, having to get up early and go on a team run, knowing the person next to you is doing the same thing.”
Chemistry aside, the Terps are loaded at each level on the field, anchored by the veterans who have led them this far. Midfielder Katie Schwarzmann — the two-time ACC offensive player of the year — won the 2012 Tewaaraton Award and is a finalist again this year. Aust leads the team in points (119, third on Maryland’s all-time list), goals (67) and assists (52), and Iliana Sanza was recently named national defender of the year by the Intercollegiate Women’s Lacrosse Coaches Association. Howard minds the net and hasn’t ceded more than nine goals in a game since April 6.
Those four constitute half of Maryland’s stellar senior class, a group that’s never missed a Final Four yet still maintains a certain degree of bitterness.
“There’s that extra urgency for us to get back there,” Schwarzmann said. “It’s probably more unspoken.”
Since winning the 2010 national title, the Terps have been eliminated by Northwestern in consecutive years. So forgive this group if it’s not satisfied with simply making the Final Four, especially for eight seniors seeking a red-carpet exit from college.
“When we beat Duke on Saturday [in the NCAA quarterfinals], it wasn’t like the mad rush and everyone was crazy,” Reese said. “They have a goal. They’re on a mission, and that’s a piece of it. I’m like, we need to celebrate our successes. This is huge that we’re going to the Final Four. But they’re on a mission. For us, at this point, we’re just there to guide and support them in any way we can.”
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