If Maryland fans mustered the same passion for field hockey as they did for say, football or even lacrosse, would they be calling for head coach Missy Meharg to make wholesale lineup changes because they lost to North Carolina and didn't register as lopsided a win against Miami of Ohio as fans though they should? Consider the question rhetorical. The truth is that, like the men's soccer team, while the preseason ranking may be justified by the season's end, it was likely a bit too lofty at the season's start.
UNC - a sticky gooey game
Maryland lost two first team All-Americans, Jill Witmer and Ali McEvoy, as well as All-ACC goalie Natalie Hunter from their 2013 Final Four squad. While Hunter was replaced by redshirt senior Brooke Cabrera, Meharg is still looking for the right combination to balance the loss of the two field players. Against North Carolina, the starting lineup featured four freshmen. For the game, UNC played one freshman. From this framework alone it makes sense that the Tar Heels would be the more polished squad so early in the season. Meharg said as much in her post game comments:
"No question a disappointing outcome. Though the Maryland attack has been growing they definitely could have been a bit more opportunistic in the final fourth but I think Carolina's game plan was very mature in waiting behind us and getting under the ball. Maryland will work very hard on our one v one and two v one situations going to goal. We will get ourselves in position to number one, get more shots and, number two, get more penalty corners."
As the coach's statement also notes, Maryland encountered difficulty finishing in the scoring area - a statement that applied not only to scoring but to simply getting shots or drawing penalty corners. While Maryland's defense held North Carolina to just 14 shots - well below their average of nearly 25 - the Tar Heels' more experienced back line was even stingier limiting the Terps to just eight shots with only two of those on goal. Maryland also picked up only a single penalty corner and it didn't come until the sixty-eighth minute after the outcome had essentially been decided.
Meharg calls field hockey "a game of invasion" and stated unequivocally that Maryland lost the game of invasion to the Tar Heels. While this was in part a result of a team still spit shining its game, it was also due to Carolina's defensive approach
"I think Carolina had a lot of concern for our forwards. You could tell by the way they held the defenders goal side and just waited for us. You might look at the game and think, ‘Maryland possessed the game better. They had more possession in the midfield. But in the critical areas of the field we weren't as good.' North Carolina had the advantage on both ends. So on our defensive goal line - 12 feet long and on the other goal line in the circle, we didn't have the stats. It's about understanding those critical areas of the game."
Playing a team sport is a process. Teams need to work to develop chemistry, understanding, and identity. Often, success is a matter of trust between teammates and this, too, comes with time. Clearly, playing four freshmen in the third game of the season against one of the nation's best and most talented squads has the potential to expose the lack of those traits simply because the players haven't had sufficient time to develop them.
"Maryland's style is to play attacking hockey. But the idea is to make those advantage passes more in the belly of the field so you can go forward to cage rather than out on the sidelines where it's not dangerous. You try to have passing patterns where it goes out and in and over and forward and over and I think Maryland just got pretty zonal in just going up the sides there.
We had numbers in the midfield many many times but we played as individuals and not as a team. We need to have a team attack - not one player."
Ever the optimist, Meharg's final take away from the game reflected her outlook,
"I do not like to lose but I also see so many amazing things from that game so early in the season that will help us especially in November."
Movin' out - grounding the Red Hawks
Meharg wouldn't admit to starting the fire but the Terrapins certainly had the look of a different team when they took the field Sunday against the Miami (Ohio) Red Hawks. The Terps fired 10 shots in the first half and 28 for the game. They also picked up a dozen penalty corners with a ten of those coming in the second half.
Maryland didn't have the longest time to dwell on the loss to UNC and bounced back quickly in Sunday's game against Miami. The stat sheet is more reflective of Maryland's ability to make the lights go out on Broadway than was the final score. One Terrapins' shot hit the post and Red Hawks goalie Alysa Xavier made several saves that became head shaking moments for the offensive team. As with Maryland's late goal against the Tar Heels, Miami scored on a penalty corner with four seconds to play. avoiding the shutout but never really threatening the Terps.
Due in part to an injury to Lien Holsboer, the coach again shifted her starting lineup choosing to include only two freshmen against Miami. Meharg clearly has a way about her and with seven national championships to her credit certainly is no stranger in finding her way to the river of dreams while building a squad of championship caliber. The shifting starting lineup is part of that strategy,
"It's more about rotation and making sure every player is being seen and has an opportunity know what it's like to come off the bench. I personally believe that the ability to come off the bench and be a spark and add something to the team is important. We're very deep. We've got 14 field players that are all able to be in the game at the beginning of the game or not. I'm not a huge lover of the word starter and non-starter or bench because I don't think it reflects the nature of our game since we have unlimited substitutions. To me it's about earning the opportunity to be on the field at the beginning but if you're that player who's going to make a difference coming off the bench then that's just as valuable as any starter."
The coach also made a move with Carrie Hanks. In the previous three games, the freshman from Niskayuna, New York had played almost exclusively as part of the Terrapins' back line. For the game against Miami, Meharg made her more of an uptown girl allowing her to push forward and be more integral to the attack.
"Casey (Tapman) and Steffi (Schneid) as seniors in the back are playing really well with Sarah (Sprink) and Rachel Frusher. Carrie has been great in the back for us but she's also got tremendous ability to play in the midfield and that's really where she's been more comfortable before coming here. We're going to try to make sure she's able to play both lines as a midfielder and as a back. She's very skillful offensively and can really attack the left side. She's got a fabulous shot."
In addition to Frusher, Holsboer, and Hanks, Moira Putsch is another freshman who is likely to become a very different player as the season progresses. It was Putsch who made the drive along the back line that led to Maryland's first goal against Miami. In addition to having speed that allows her to go to extremes, Putsch displays a toughness the belies her somewhat diminutive size. Against Carolina, Meharg described her play this way,
"Moira Putsch played well up front. At times she really got knocked off the ball but was so tenacious to get back in it. She showed great grit."
and reflecting on her performance against the Red Hawks, Putsch's coach said,
"Moira's very special. She reminds me of Jill Witmer when she was a freshman. The bottom line is Moira Putsch can run by anybody. When she does that she can always lay it back and she has so much grit. I'm really happy she's a Terp."
So, Terp fans, let's not go to extremes over a single early season loss to an outstanding opponent. In sports, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. And so it goes. The Terps have two home games this weekend, Saturday against Drexel and Sunday against number 16 Temple before they open their inaugural Big Ten campaign with consecutive road games at Northwestern, Michigan, and Michigan State.