The Maryland women’s lacrosse team entered the 2017 season atop its perennial perch as a heavy favorite to win its 13th national championship. But this group also heard whispers of a rare and lingering question: How would it replace graduated midfielder Taylor Cummings and defender Alice Mercer, two of the best players in NCAA history?
Senior midfielder Zoe Stukenberg pondered that question as the top-seeded Terrapins (20-0) prepared to host Saturday’s NCAA quarterfinal against Stony Brook (20-1).
After all, Cummings was a three-time winner of the Tewaaraton Award, the sport’s equivalent of the Heisman Trophy; Mercer, meanwhile, was a finalist for the award last year.
“We lost two of the best players that I’ve ever had the privilege of playing with, or just honestly, two of the best players to ever play the game,” Stukenberg said. “I think what is so special about this group . . . we looked at it as an opportunity for all 12 people on the field to kind of fill that void and make up that difference.”
Stukenberg said she doesn’t belong in the same sentence as Cummings or Mercer, though she actually did as a junior, when she served as a co-captain alongside both.
But after Maryland lost in the national championship game to North Carolina last May , denying the Terrapins their third consecutive title, Stukenberg vowed for her senior season not to try to replicate the roles of Cummings and Mercer.
Nonetheless, Stukenberg has extended Maryland’s line of standouts in the sport. Her teammates once again voted for her as a captain. She has started 87 of 89 career games; has posted 169 goals (ninth in program history), 74 assists and 243 points; and has lost only three games in her career.
She, along with Maryland senior defender Nadine Hadnagy, is a finalist for the women’s Tewaaraton Award, which has been won by a Maryland player in each of the past five seasons.
“She’s just goes with it. That’s what we’ve seen from her this year,” Coach Cathy Reese said of Stukenberg, who like Reese and many former Terrapins stars is a Maryland native from Howard County. “This is her group right now. These are the people that make up our 2017 team. It’s different than any other team that we’ve had in the past. It’s different than what we’ll have in the future. This is the here and the now, and she’s one of the leaders of it.”
With a win over Stony Brook on Saturday in College Park — where Stukenberg has not lost a game — Maryland would advance to its ninth straight Final Four. Should North Carolina win its next two games, those teams would meet in the national championship for the third consecutive year. But Stukenberg, with her understated leadership style, has not fashioned this season as a redemption tour.
Her teammates have gravitated toward her affable teaching ability, which is pronounced on and off the field.
She might show a younger player a move in practice, or she might help a group of teammates with their biology homework on the bus during road trips. Whenever a player has a question about their math or science homework, they usually go to Stukenberg, a 4.0 grade-point student who will join the Teach for America program in June. She will receive her training as a student teacher in Philadelphia this summer before rotating to the Baltimore public school system in the fall.
“She loves teaching people,” said Hadnagy, who has also served as a captain the past two years. “She’s always thought, if she’s able to teach it, she would understand it better.”
That includes at the defensive end. Stukenberg said defense was her weakness when she arrived in college.
She was a gifted offensive playmaker, but “teams would target me as the weakest link” on the other end, she said. “And rightly so. But [the team] had so much patience and confidence in me, and in every game and every practice, they would encourage me to keep trying to improve. They would give me tips and pointers. They would cover my back when my girl beat me.”
Stukenberg gradually developed that part of the game, which appears to be the only flaw during her time in College Park. While Stukenberg already is prepared for her life after lacrosse, hoping to use some of the lessons she learned playing under Reese and alongside players like Cummings and Mercer in her work with Teach for America, she is hoping to squeeze another week and a half out of her career.
“We’re trying to give our seniors the send-off they deserve. Every year, that’s been my motivation in May,” Stukenberg said. “I’m always so thankful the lessons they’ve taught me.”