By virtue of their 3-2 win at Rutgers Wednesday night, the Maryland men's soccer team became the first men's team and the second Terrapins squad to claim a Big Ten championship in Maryland's first Big Ten season. The ride may have encountered some turbulence but the Terrapins passed through those early season storm clouds to emerge with a new trophy to add to their collection. Here's a look back in a prelude and acts.
Prelude - Testudo Times podcast: I love being right
On August 19th, Andrew Emmer and I spent over 40 minutes in a podcast discussing the prospects for Maryland's niche interest sports and the first sport we talked about was men's soccer. I noted that I believed that the Terps' preseason number two ranking was probably premature. Here's what I said:
"They're going to have to figure out how to score goals. It's an interesting set of circumstances here in that going into last season the big question mark was the back line. We had three freshmen starting - including a freshman in goal and were really solid up front and in the midfield. This year, Patrick Mullins has graduated. Jake Pace has graduated. Sunny has Jane graduated. Schillo Tshuma turned pro. So you take those out and Maryland's lost almost two-thirds of its scoring - about 62 percent of its goals from last year. So we really don't know who's going to score goals at this point for Maryland. As I said, it's a mirror of last year."
Act 1 - A Prediction and A Reaction: Guess whose coach is sounding off?
The next day, August 20, 2014, the Big Ten released its Preseason Men's Soccer Coaches Poll and the first sentence of the press release read as follows: "The Big Ten Conference announced its 2014 men's soccer preseason coaches' poll and players to watch list on Wednesday, with Maryland claiming the top spot among the nine teams heading into its first year in the conference." On one level this this made perfect sense. Maryland had been to two consecutive College Cups, had played in the 2013 final, returned at least eight starters from that team, and was second in the national preseason coaches poll.
However, at least one Big Ten coach, Penn State's Bob Warming, didn't quite see things that way, "I just thought it was disrespectful to the rest of our conference ... and I called the coaches," he said at Penn State's media day. "They're great, but they haven't won a game in our conference yet. Already for me, I feel a little like, 'All right, let's go. Let's see how you're doing.' "
Act 2 - Breaking Ground: Scoring woes and was Coach Warming right?
By the time Maryland traveled to Ann Arbor to play their first conference game as a Big Ten member, they were 1-2-1 and had been shutout twice in the season's first four games. In that game, it looked as though the Terps were headed not only for a loss but were about to suffer their third shutout of the season. A desperation goal by David Kabelik with 22 seconds to play in regulation averted the whitewash and let Maryland salvage a tie.
The Terps returned home to inaugurate the home portion of their Big Ten schedule when they hosted Michigan State in front of a crowd of over 6,000 vocal fans. Tenacious defense and a single goal by the visitors quieted the crowd and kept Maryland's offense dormant. When the Spartans left College Park that mid-September Friday night, the Terrapins were 1-2-2 on the season and 0-1-1 in conference play.
After picking up shutout wins over Dayton and Wisconsin, the Terps dropped their third 1-0 game of the season when they hosted the Georgetown Hoyas. Nine games into the season, the Terps had been shutout four times - the most since they were shutout three times in 2002 - had scored a total of eight goals and were under .500 with a 3-4-2 record. Not only had Maryland fallen from their lofty preseason perch but they had fallen from the rankings completely. Looming on the horizon was a trip to Evanston to play the Northwestern Wildcats who had collected six shutouts in their first nine games and had only conceded four goals none of which had come on their home field.
Act 3 - Loss and Ejection: The hole deepens but the climb begins
When Northwestern jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first 12 minutes of the game, the situation in Evanston looked grim for the Terrapins. Mael Corboz scored on a penalty kick in the 26th minute and Jeroen Meefout brought the Terps even with a goal in the 87th minute. But the game ended in some controversy. Just before the Wildcats scored the winning goal in the first overtime, Maryland players thought defender Chris Odui-Atsem had been fouled and that the ball had crossed the end line. Neither was called and, after Northwestern had scored the winning goal, an irate Maryland coach Sasho Cirovski confronted the referees in a manner not usually seen on a college soccer pitch.
His display earned the coach a one game suspension and garnered a $10,000 fine to the university that Cirovski ultimately paid. As fans and reporters we Will Likely never know if Cirovski, who was 50 yards or more distant from the play, thought the call was legitimately so egregious that it merited his explosion, or whether he was standing up in defense of his players. Another possibility is that his outburst was meant to affect his team the way a basketball coach might hope to do when he draws a technical foul.
Whether it was an effect of Cirovski's pyrotechnic display, the resolve of a team seeing men with shovels on the brink of filling the hole, the coincidence of having several key players return to health, or some combination of the three, the loss to Northwestern proved to be the turning point for Maryland's season.
With their record sitting at 3-5-2, the Terps returned home to the news that their coach had received that one game suspension. On tap, they faced a game against a VCU squad that had a superficially unimpressive 4-6-1 record. A deeper look, however showed that the Rams had faced a rather daunting schedule (vs. #5 UNC 0-1; at #6 Georgetown 2-1; at #15 UVA 0-1; at #4 New Mexico 0-2; at #1 Notre Dame 0-1 in 2 OT; vs #20 George Mason 3-0). While the Terps lone goal came on another Mael Corboz penalty kick, the squad put together a solid 90 minutes of soccer against a quality opponent. Still, no one could have expected what came next.
Act 4 - Fear the Turtle: Coming out of their shell
Maryland returned to conference play with a Sunday afternoon contest against the B1G leading Penn State Nittany Lions. Previewing the game, I wrote:
"While they are not among the elite of the elite in scoring, Penn State's 1.91 goals per game average is 25th in the NCAA so they are a solid offensive squad. However, they truly stand out on the defensive side of the ball. They have given up a mere three goals in 11 games and the overall goals against average (GAA) of 0.27 is college soccer's second best.
Their stingy defense holds opponents average just over 11 shots per game. In an indication that few of these are particularly good looks, only about one in four shots reaches the goal where senior goalkeeper Andrew Wolverton has turned his 6'6" frame into a veritable wall."
The game certainly looked to be one that was heavily tilted in favor of Nittany Lions because their strength on defense set up against the Terrapins' weakness - offense and scoring. Perhaps the Terps had been inspired by their coach. Perhaps they had found an inner resolve from the team meeting they held after losing to Northwestern. Perhaps they wanted to show Coach Warming just how they were doing. Perhaps they were bolstered by the return to the pitch of a healthy Tsubasa Endoh. Or a healthy Mikias Eticha. Or a healthy Alex Shinsky. Perhaps it was again a combination of factors.
Whichever it was, Penn State met a perfect storm at Maryland that day. Corboz opened the scoring with a beautiful one touch goal from about eight yards barely 12 minutes into the contest. Nineteen minutes later he followed that by scoring on a penalty kick for the third straight game. When the final horn sounded, the Terps had not only shut out the Nittany Lions, they had scored more goals in a single game than Penn State had given up for the entire season. The 4-0 rout clearly announced that Maryland was back.
Act 5 - Rollin', Rollin', Rollin' to a Title: They never lost one minute of sleepin'
The Terps have been unstoppable since flipping the switch after the loss at Northwestern. Over that span, they went from a scoring challenged squad to one that will finish at or near the top of the conference in total goals scored for the season. Over that span, they picked up four of their seven shutouts on the season. Over that span they outscored their opponents by a cumulative 23-6. Oh, and did we mention that over that span they'd won eight straight? Well, they did. And that disappeared ranking while not quite back to number two has become a sold seventeen.
Still, even with all the late season heroics, Maryland needed some games to break right to offset their slow start and put them in position to claim the title. The first step was for Maryland to pick up their seventh straight win by beating Ohio State which they did 1-0. Then, headed into the season's final games, the Terps needed:
(1) Penn State to lose at Northwestern which they did 2-1 in overtime. A Penn State win would have eliminated the Terps and given the championship to the Nittany Lions. A tie would have allowed the Terps to share the title but given them the top seed in the B1G Tournament by virtue of their head to head win.
(2) Michigan State to tie or lose one of their final two games either at home against Michigan or on the road Wednesday at Indiana. With their 3-2 win, Michigan eliminated Michigan State's title chances.
Those two results laid Maryland's fate at their own feet. Win at Rutgers and claim the Big Ten Championship. Lose or tie and hand at least a share of the title to Penn State and possibly fall as low as fifth in the standings. Fortunately for Maryland fans, the Terrapins earned the result they needed - a 3-2 win - and men's soccer joined Missy Meharg's field hockey squad as they became the second Maryland team to claim a Big Ten Championship in their first season as a member of the conference.