MARYLAND'S MOST IMPORTANT 12 DAYS OF THE SEASON
By Al Mattei
Though there are roughly 75 teams in NCAA Division I field hockey, there are a scant five or six "elite" teams at any given time. And, to their credit, they do not consciously avoid each other in regular-season play.
The University of Maryland, however, did something in the 1998 season which may be considered foolhardy if not suidical. Before a six-game home stretch to end the Terps' slate of regular-season games, Maryland had a four-game series in a 12-day span featuring all four of the 1997 Final Four teams: Princeton, Virginia, Old Dominion, and North Carolina.
"When I did it last year, I knew we had a young team," said Maryland head coach Missy Meharg. "so I knew we weren't going to be as experienced as any of those four teams. If we could aspire to get one or two wins out of that foursome, we'd be in pretty good shape."
These 12 days were the ones which could make or break a season. Win all four and you could expect the Terrapins to shoot all the way to the top of the Top 25. Lose all four and, no matter what the homestand does for the RPI rating, you might as well get ready for spring hockey.
Real concerns swirled around Maryland heading into this four-game stretch because of the perpetual search for consistency. The Terrapins had, in the first half of the 1998 season, looked like an NCAA championship contender thanks to its speed and finishing ability. However, there have been games, especially in a 3-2 loss to Rutgers and a 2-1 loss to Delaware, when Maryland's attack has been bottled up by good defense.
Game One: Sept. 30, at Princeton
The Terrapins had every reason to feel good about the trip to Princeton, since their defense had gone through a stretch of 182 minutes without yielding a goal. On the other end of the field, Princeton had lost U-21 national team goalkeeper Gia Fruscione to a preseason leg injury.
In a taut game in which Princeton outshot Maryland 16-3, the Terps' defense and goalkeeping held virtually all the way through. Freshman goalkeeper Angela Platt, on whom much was expected when it cames to her team's success, made 10 saves against the Tiger attack.
"Our defense played super and Angela had a outstanding game," said Maryland head coach Missy Meharg. "I think our team needs to focus really hard on the process of the 69 minutes of outstanding hockey we played against a top team that has come from the Final Four. We just got a little lazy there in the end and they popped one in on us."
Meharg's remarks referred to Princeton's Mollie O'Malley, who sent the ball into the cage with 39 seconds remaining for the only goal of the game.
"She (O'Malley) never gives up," said Princeton head coach Beth Bozman. "Ninety percent of the players in the country would not have gone after that rebound but she did. This is a great win for us because they (Maryland) are a good team and I don't think we've seen the last of them."
"Their goalie deflected the ball to where I was and I had a little time to get off a good shot," said O'Malley, a veteran of the U-23 national team. "This was a great win for us at this point in the season and I'm really excited."
But, as is the case in many field hockey games, each team made a run. Maryland's attack managed to earn a corner in those last 39 seconds and, under international rules, did not have to complete the play before time expired. With the entire crowd standing, and with the play clock at 1952 Stadium glowing 0:00.0, the Maryland attack had one final chance off the stick of sophomore Carla Tagliente.
But Princeton's four fullbacks and the inspired senior goalkeeper Meg DeJong were equal to the task, giving the Tigers a 1-0 victory.
"It's been an interesting time -- unexpected, but very interesting," DeJong said. "It's not hard to keep concentrating with this much at stake."
"We just have to keep fighting,' said Maryland forward Keli Smith, "We know we can do it. A lot of the young players are really starting to come into their game. I thing it will be a good fight on Sunday too."
Game Two: Oct. 4, at Virginia
The Virginia game represented an opportunity for Maryland to make some headway in ACC Tournament seedings. The Cavaliers had been the preseason No. 1 team was regarded as the likely candidate to take down three-time defending champion North Carolina at the end of the 1998 season.
However, in late September, Carolina not only beat Virginia, the Heels took a dominating 3-0 win. Maryland had some hope, as well as trepidation, from this result.
The trepidation was for real: Virginia was able to take a 2-0 lead against Maryland. However, the Wahoos saw the fine Maryland finisher Keli Smith put the ball in the cage in the final minute of the first half -- the only shot the Terrapins had in the first 35 minutes of play.
However, in the second minute of the second half, the Cavaliers' Meredith Elwell, the ex-U23 national-teamer, scored her second goal of the game. It was enough for a 3-2 victory.
What had to concern the Maryland coaching staff was the lack of corners that the team was able to generate in the second half. The Terrapins' corners were deadly throughout (scoring on two of three), but they only earned one in the second half. Tagliente was able to score on the play.
After that shot on goal, Virginia was able to hold Maryland shotless for the last 16 minutes of regulation. It would not bode well for the immediate future.
Game Three: Oct. 8, at Old Dominion
There was very little time to recuperate from the Virginia loss, as the Terps had to travel to Old Dominion next. It was a team which not only represents a good chunk of American women's sports tradition, but more NCAA Division I championships (nine) than any other team.
From the start, it was evident that there would be no stopping Marina DiGiacomo. The Argentine attacker, the only non-American who played in last summer's USFHA Summer League, had been the leading scorer for the Monarchs coming into the game, and she did not disappoint. The phenom had four goals as Old Dominion rolled up a 7-0 win.
"I often think that wins and losses can come from a past game," Meharg said. "And I think that's what happened to Old Dominion, losing to Northeastern."
On the bus back home from Virginia Beach, there was a stunned silence among the players, as they began to realize exactly what was expected of them, that they had to find the magic and togetherness which characterized much of their early-season play.
"They taught us a little bit of a lesson," Meharg said. "It was a lesson as to how to play championship hockey. Old Dominion forced us to set a standard of play."
It was a standard which would be met the following Sunday.
Game Four: Oct. 11, vs. North Carolina
The only one of the four games in which Maryland had the home-field advantage, the Terps hosted North Carolina on a Sunday afternoon in front of an overflow crowd. Many in attendance were elite scholastic players from outside of Prince Georges' County who came to attend a minicamp after the game.
As the teams warmed up, both teams appeared to be somewhat tight, and it would be a matter of which team could work off the jitters.
Maryland, taking a page from the Rutgers playbook, got loose early with its speed. Maryland bottled up the North Carolina attack with good tackling and positioning, forcing the Tar Heels' fullbacks into mistakes. The Terrapins' attack line of Dina Rizzo, Keli Smith, and Kasey Heiser turned heavily defensive, causing numerous turnovers in their attack end and getting good shots on the North Carolina cage.
If there was hope in the Terrapins' first goal, and if there was satisfaction in the second, there was downright giddiness by the time Carla Tagliente made a penalty stroke to give Maryland a 3-0 lead. Despite the margin at that time of the game, the packed house was waiting for North Carolina's minions to rise up like they had time and time again in the past.
That surge never happened.
Indeed, the Terrapins won 5-0, even getting a goal on a corner at the end of regulation time as an exclamation point on the proceedings. But there was no rest for the team. Certainly, the Carolina win put the best possible spin on the Terrapins' quartet of tough games, given the fact that Maryland's final seven regular-season games are at home.
"For us in the ACC, this is a challenge," Meharg said. "We know that we have to go down to the tournament (the first weekend in November) and win it for us to have a chance at the NCAA Tournament."
Maryland used the momentum from this contest to not only sweep its last seven regular-season games -- all at home -- the Terps went out and won the ACC championship, the nation's most competitive tournament.
Meharg's young team not only beat North Carolina again, but edged Virginia in the finals, giving the Terrapins the automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament. The game also helped give the Terps one of four home-field berths in the NCAA quarterfinals. However, Maryland dropped its quarterfinal match, 5-1, to Virginia.