Fans of Maryland's Olympic sports should have no complaint about the scheduling proclivities of the coaches for these Terrapin sports. Jonathan Morgan opened the women's soccer season with a trip to top ranked and defending national champion UCLA. Volleyball coach Steve Aird also managed a west coast swing for his squad to take on two top five teams before entering conference play. As we noted in our men's soccer preview, the Terps open the season at thirteenth ranked Louisville before facing two more top twenty squads at home. Maryland's head field hockey coach Missy Meharg, follows a similar script. The Terps begin their season Friday night against tenth ranked Massachusetts coached by former Terrapin great Paula Infante. Then, after facing Northeastern in the second game of the Conference Cup, Maryland comes back to College Park to face second ranked North Carolina.
While Aird and Morgan are both in the early years of their tenure and building their programs, it's no coincidence that Meharg and Cirovski, Maryland's two longest tenured coaches share another trait in common - uninterrupted success. Cirovski's squad is the only men's team in any NCAA sport to reach at least as far as the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament over the past dozen years a span than includes five College Cup appearances plus two national championships. The achievements of Meharg's field hockey teams may be even more impressive reaching six consecutive and ten of the last eleven Final Fours while picking up national championships in 2011, 2010, 2008, 2006, and 2005. Their shared philosophy seems to be start tough, finish stronger.
Before hearing the coach's thoughts about the schedule and the changes we'll see on the field this season, let's open with a look at the NFCHA preseason poll. The one value I see in preseason polls is that they set a certain expectation level for the season. For Maryland field hockey, the expectation is national championship. In the coaches' poll released Tuesday, the Terps received 22 of the 47 first place votes and are ranked first just ahead of North Carolina and defending champion Connecticut.
On scheduling challenges
When Maryland entered the Big Ten one of the most immediate concerns was the impact of expanded travel, However, with the move Maryland field hockey also enters, quite literally, a bigger conference. Seven ACC teams compete in field hockey. In the B1G, that number expands to nine. This adds two conference games to the regular season schedule. The combination of factors led the Terps to schedule three fewer non-conference games in 2014 than they played in 2013. "The biggest approach we took to this year was making sure we had the strength of schedule outside the league," Meharg said.
The Terps will face teams ranked in the top ten in four of the ten non-conference games and a fifth in the top twenty. "Having teams like North Carolina, Old Dominion, and Princeton in our region we can satisfy both the strength of schedule and travel components. My goal every year is to get five top teams outside the league."
In a side note, field hockey seems to have emerged relatively unscathed from the ACC versus Maryland squabble. In addition to facing North Carolina this season, Meharg told me that the 2015 schedule includes Duke and Boston College and that an ACC - B1G challenge may be in the offing as well.
On being number one with a target
As noted above, Maryland is ranked first in the preseason coaches poll. This ranking comes despite losing All-Americans Jill Witmer, Ali McEvoy, and Natalie Hunter to graduation. Asked for her reaction, Meharg said, "This time of the year is interesting. I'm never surprised. Number one comes with some interesting mental challenges. I'm confident that the players who have been here for two, three or four years understand that it's nothing more than a number. In the end, it comes down to our quality of play and staying present."
Because the Terps have been among the elite programs in NCAA field hockey for over a decade, they are accustomed to being a team that has their game circled on every opponent's calendar. "The reality of that is that bumping off the number one team can make an opponent's season quite different. We know that target is there and we've talked openly about that. What we need to understand is that there needs to be a presence on the field at all times, an intensity that dictates and merits that ranking."
I asked the coach if the move to a new conference and teams playing for conference pride added yet another layer to the competition the Terrapins will face. "I believe It's an honor. When you've earned people's attention whether it's because you're number one, or you're Maryland, or you have a number of championships, or you're in a new league, it's a peripheral story. In the real gamut of sport and competition, it's an honor for people to raise their bar when they play you."
In talking with Brooke Cabrera and Katie Gerzabek, both players appear to have embraced the move to the Big Ten. Addressing the mood of the team, Cabrera said, "We're very excited knowing that we have competition that we've never had before and new experiences. I think it gives our team an opportunity to diversify and have more of a variety of skills. I think everyone's very positive about it."
Gerzabek echoed Cabrera saying, "It's really exciting going into the Big Ten and having new experiences. When people play Maryland they're going to play harder than they would any other school because everyone wants to say they beat Maryland. Being ranked number one and going into a new conference we definitely have an even bigger bullseye on our back this season. But we like the idea of being the leader as we go into the new conference."
On conference rankings and parity
The ACC has long been the dominant field hockey conference and 2014 is no different. All seven teams from Maryland's previous affiliation are ranked in the top fifteen in the preseason poll. However, as Coach Cirovski stressed regarding B1G soccer, the Terps' new home is not a cakewalk. In addition to Maryland, the Big Ten has five teams ranked in the top twenty and the Terrapins will face three of them - Michigan, Michigan State, and Northwestern - on the road while the others, Iowa and Penn State, will come to College Park.
"There's far more parity in the top twenty," Meharg said. "It used to be you could look at the top four or five teams and then there was a huge drop off and 15 through 20 were teams that really wouldn't be able to touch the top teams.. Now, I think you can go down as far as twelve or fourteen and have anybody win a game."
On replacing the stars. Who will shine in 2014?
"I think we have a really broad talent base. Our new players have tremendous talent. And I love juniors. They're real workhorses in the program and rather than a junior slump, we've had juniors who have had their very best performances." Meharg then named nearly every member of the junior class from Alyssa Parker to Sarah Sprink to Anna Dessoye as among the candidates to replace the three departed All-Americans. Rather than having one superstar like Katie O'Donnell, the coach sees this season's squad as more a constellation of stars. "I can see this team playing some of the best team field hockey that's ever been played here," she added.
Those who have followed Terrapins field hockey are familiar with those upper classmen as well as some of the seniors - Maxine Fluharty, Katie Gerzabek, and Steffi Schneid. I asked Coach Meharg to talk a bit about her freshman class. "Maura Putsch up front will be a prominent player. She's a member of the U.S. Under-21 team as a forward together with three of her teammates. They've had an opportunity to play together this summer and are showing a lot of chemistry as a result. Carrie Hanks has been a pleasant surprise. She's more ready than we anticipated and she will surely be in a defensive midfield or a backfield role. Lein Holsboer from the Netherlands will get a lot of time in the midfield."
Meharg also mentioned Rachel Frusher an Australian who's technically a sophomore having transferred from Murdock College in western Australia. Frusher came to Maryland for its kinesiology program and should also see substantial playing time in the center of Maryland's defense according to her coach.
On being ready to go
Because field hockey's season is several weeks shorter than soccer's, Meharg, unlike Cirovski, sees little room for using early season games as a learning experience. "The players are as ready as they're going to be. And we're as ready as we're going to be as coaches. They know all the set-ups. They know where we are and we're ready to take on UMass on Friday night."
This will be the first tournament at USA Field Hockey's official training center at Spooky Nook Sports Complex just west of Lancaster, PA. As such, it will be a bit of a reunion for the Terrapins family as national team players Katie O'Donnell, Jill Witmer, and Ali McEvoy should all be in attendance. Maryland and UMass are scheduled to face off at 5:00 pm Friday.