Saturday's 4-1 win over the Iowa Hawkeyes made the coronation official. The 2014 Big Ten field hockey championship belonged to the the Maryland Terrapins and only the Maryland Terrapins. Coach Missy Meharg and her squad thus will always be remembered as the first Maryland team to claim a Big Ten championship.
In 2013 the Terps played their final season in the ACC and were crowned conference champions with their 2-0 win over North Carolina in the ACC Tournament. Unlike their former conference, the Big Ten believes in in rewarding the title of Conference Champion to the team that has had the best performance over the season. So, in 2014, their first season in the Big Ten, the Terps finished 7-1 in conference play and added yet another trophy to their crowded trophy shelf. Said senior goalie Brooke Cabrera, "We went out of the ACC with a bang and we're starting the right way in the Big Ten."
Meharg described the feeling, "Championships mean everything to us. That's the culture by which the program was set when I even got the job here however many years ago. The year before I took the job they won a national championship. This is what we stand for and this is what we do."
The definition of a team
The Big Ten website sets down seventeen statistical categories for its field hockey teams. Here's the list of categories in which Maryland leads B1G teams over all games: Scoring Margin, Scoring Average, Shutouts, Goals Against Average, Shots, Shots per Game, Goals, Goals per Game, Goals Against, Goals Against per Game, Assists, Assists per Game, Penalty Corners per Game, Goals off Penalty Corners. No need to count, that's fourteen of the seventeen.
The only categories in which Maryland doesn't lead the conference are Saves, Saves per Game, and Defensive Saves per Game (a save made by a defender other than the goalie). This is more a reflection of Maryland's team defense than any other factor. You see, the Terps have allowed a conference low 77 shots on goal.
In conference only games, the Terrapins lead in 11 of the fourteen categories. The Northwestern Wildcats, who have conceded 10 goals to Maryland's 11 in conference play, lead the conference in three defensive categories.
The individual statistical categories are a bit different than those kept for teams. However, despite their team prowess, there are only two categories in which a Maryland player leads the conference (for all games). That player would be Katie Gerzabek who leads the B1G in assists and assists per game. She's joined in the top three by Anna Dessoye. The only other Terrapin to crack the top three in any category is Maxine Fluharty whose 15 goals ties her for the third spot in goals scored.
In conference only games, the picture is a bit more Terrapins heavy. A Terp leads or is tied for the top spot in ten individual categories. Look further down these lists and you will find few categories where Maryland isn't represented by two, three, or even four players.
The turning point
Here are some of Maryland's statistics through the first seven games this season:
|Maryland||Opponent||Maryland Average||Opponent Average|
Their record was 5-2, they had just lost their B1G conference opener 3-2 at Northwestern and were facing two more conference games on the road against teams respectively ranked 14th and 18th in the country. Asked whether the loss helped focus the team en route to this title, Meharg said, "It's been a great ride being in the Big Ten. We opened up our season at Northwestern where we played a great match even though the score didn't necessarily reflect how we played. We knew that throughout the season. I don't think the loss motivated us any differently. I think what's motivated us has been the inspiration to score goals."
From the coach's perspective the game may not have been pivotal but here are those same statistics through the regular season's final 11 games:
|Maryland||Opponent||Maryland Average||Opponent Average|
The Terps are 11-0 in this stretch of games. Since that loss to Northwestern, only Michigan (2-0) and Old Dominion (3-1) have held Maryland to fewer than four goals and only Penn State (4-3) has scored more than twice.
Perhaps stating the obvious about a team that averaged 4.39 goals per game for the season and nearly five and a half over this 11 game stretch, Meharg said, "The key to our momentum and winning has been goal scoring. We've been working so hard on this in practice. Dina Rizzo runs the attack. We've got Jill Witmer on our staff right now and these women are world class forwards. For our younger players who are getting used to this level - Moira (Putsch), Emma (Rissinger), and Anna (Dessoye) are just really growing as goal scorers." (For perspective, the number two scoring team in the NCAA - St. Francis (PA) averages 3.67 goals per game and Iowa, the number two scoring team in the B1G averages 3.18.)
Of course, it's also difficult to overlook the solidity of Maryland's defense. Their season long average of 1.17 goals against is seventh best in the NCAA. Meharg called Steffi Schneid's effort against Iowa's Natalie Cafone - helping to shut out the B1G's leading scorer - "world class defending." After other recent games the coach has cited the work of Kasey Tapman and Rachel Frusher as well as her "libero" in the center, co-captain Sarah Sprink. As to the anchor of the defense, Brooke Cabrera, Meharg said, "Brooke's the heartbeat of this program. She's very demanding of herself. She's demanding of her teammates but she's also very forgiving. If you listen to her in videos from behind and she's communicating the entire time. If she wants something done and somebody doesn't do it, she just responds to whatever she sees them do and then keeps communicating. That's where our backfield has been so open. They're not fearful of making a mistake in any way because she's very present and exceedingly intense."
And the play of the defense has opened up the offense. Said senior Maxine Fluharty, "We're getting great communication from the back. The structure's set and they tell me when I can go and when I can't. We just work together in that way. It's such a solid group and unit back there right now that it gives everyone the freedom to just go and use their instincts."
The coach summed up her feelings about being the first Maryland team to win a Big Ten Championship, "Today, I'm so proud of all the women. Those who had an opportunity to play and those who didn't because these women compete as one every day. Being the first Big Ten regular season champions is quite a tribute to them."
After Sunday's game, the Terps received tee shirts and hats marking their championship status.
The team's journey to pick up two more sets of hats and tees and complete a 2014 "hat trick" begins Thursday at the University of Michigan who hosts the Big Ten Tournament. The Terps will open by playing the eighth seed. The game is scheduled to begin at 10:00 am and will be streamed live on BTN2GO.com.