The Best Team Ever?
The simple and easy answer here is no. This team was not the best women's lacrosse team ever and I don't even think they were one of the top two or three teams that Maryland has ever put on the field. They aren't in the best ever discussion. They were certainly one of the most talented and most hyped ever.
Defending the Title
Maryland's regular season schedule was a minefield designed to get the Terps ready for post-season play. They faced three top-five teams in the first seven weeks of the season. They played seven ranked opponents over the next ten weeks of the season, including one in the top-five (Northwestern) and one in the top-ten (Penn State).
Maryland looked vulnerable at times early in the season. They were shooting poorly but were scoring because of their high volume shooting and frequent free-position attempts. They were sometimes too careless with the ball and turned it over in the offensive end. Maryland was tested against UNC and Syracuse but those were both home games and once Maryland took comfortable leads, it never really felt like they were in real danger of losing the lead and falling behind.
Maryland's first ever Big Ten conference game in Evanston on national TV was a powerful reminder to the rest of the conference. This was the team to beat. The 16-5 shellacking was stunning in its effortless brutality. The game was competitive for the first 23 minutes and then Maryland scored six goals over the last seven minutes of the half to completely change the game. They were up 9-2 at the half and tacked on another seven goals in the final 30 minutes.
Maryland was behind at the half, 6-4, to Princeton but came out in the second half and completely blitzed the Tigers, winning 18-10. The Terrapins scored a ridiculous 14 goals in the second half after Princeton had dominated the first half of play. Princeton won the draw control battle in the first half but got crushed 14-5 in the second half. Maryland out-shot the Tigers 26-5 and took eight free-position shots in the final half of the game. It was a serious wake-up call that Maryland needed and responded to. Maryland continued to look mortal and beatable at times during their last four games going into the Big Ten Tournament.
The Lone Blemish
It was Ohio State who finally figured out a formula to beat Maryland. They kept the draw controls close (Maryland won 12-10), they had a lot of shots (Maryland was held under their average but only out-shot Ohio State 29-24), they won the 50-50 balls (led 13-9 in ground balls), played clean defense (Maryland only had five free position attempts in the game and only converted three of them), and their goalie played very well. Few teams could sustain the efforts on both sides of the field that was needed to beat Maryland but Ohio State put it all together and sent Maryland home in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament.
The NCAA Tournament
The NCAA Tournament is a different animal and Maryland always come ready to play. The Terps had been to six straight Final Fours and were the defending champions. The stakes were raised, just the way this team likes it. The goal of the entire season was to get back to the Final Four and win the title. The Terps did just that.
Maryland dispatched their first two opponents with ease, knocking off an upstart UMass team 19-8 and crushing Northwestern 17-5. The Terps were headed to their seventh straight Final Four and they faced Syracuse, the team they had beaten in the NCAA Final the year before.
It was a close game but Maryland came out on top once again, winning 10-8. This put the Terps on a collision course with their old arch-nemesis UNC, who beat Maryland in the NCAA Final in triple overtime in 2013 to win what was perhaps the greatest NCAA women's lacrosse game ever played. The players would never had admitted it but I think that secretly, UNC was the team that Maryland wanted to play for the title and beat.
This was a heavyweight fight. Number one versus number two. These two teams sometimes used to play each other three times a year when they were in the ACC. UNC came out swinging and in a frantic, sometimes error-filled first half, UNC looked like they were the better team. They were beating Maryland on the draw (6-4), out-shooting them (11-7) and converting their free-position attempts (2-2 to Maryland's 0-2). After 30 minutes, Maryland went into the locker room down 6-3. It was their largest half-time deficit of the season but it was another statistic that gave the greatest cause for concern.
No team had ever been down three goals or more at halftime in the NCAA Championship game and come back to win. None. In the 30 minutes that followed, Maryland made history.
Maryland went on a tear, winning draw after draw after draw. Kelly McPartland scored just under the 26 minute mark to make it 6-4 and Maryland added four goals over the next 10 minutes to go up 8-6. Brooke Griffin, Taylor Cummings and Megan Whittle, the star freshman, all combined to make that five goal run happen. Watching it unfold was amazing to behold. You could not only see but feel the game turning around. After Marie McCool cut the lead to one with just under 14 minutes to play, Taylor Cummings, the now two-time Tewaaraton Award winner, pushed it back to two about two minutes later.
Maryland was able to maintain possession for a staggering amount of the final 10 minutes. Maggie Bill brought UNC back to within one but the Tar Heels' couldn't get the ball back for that last final push. The Terrapins won 9-8 and were champions again, winning back to back titles and getting revenge on their loss in the championship game two seasons ago. Taylor Cummings and Megan Whittle combined for six of Maryland's nine goals and the McDonogh (and now Maryland) teammates had four assists between them.
This game was won by Maryland's seniors. Erin Collins, Brooke Griffin, and Kelly McPartland scored the other three Maryland goals that weren't scored by Whittle or Cummings. Kristen Lamon's size forced UNC to make adjustments and Alex Fitzpatrick, the Lehigh transfer, stepped up and made some big saves in the biggest game of her life. Megan Douty was a force on the defensive end, as were Shanna Brady and Casey Pepperman. This was their game even if the stars that shined the brightest were a freshman and one of the greatest talents that the college game has ever seen.
Who The Terps Are Losing
A lot. Maryland will sorely miss this group of seniors after only having to part with two starters a year ago. Cathy Reese will have some work cut out for her in being able to try and replicate the production from this season.
Maryland will lose Brooke Griffin, the three-year quarterback of one of the nation's most potent offenses. She is an incredibly crafty goal scorer and a great distributor. She also had the best shot-fake in women's lacrosse for the last three years. The Terps will lose Kristen Lamon, an offensive spark off of the bench, an under-rated passer and a match-up nightmare for any defense. Kelly McPartland's time in College Park as a player is done as well. She was a sensational goal scorer with blinding speed and phenomenal instincts. Her high school coach told me that when she was in seventh grade, the coaches started calling her "Prodigy". Erin Collins was the grinder. What Collins did in games for the last three years doesn't show up much in box scores but she impacted games with her hustle and man oh man, could she track down ground balls. That energy is something that you can't coach or teach. You just have to have it and Collins had it in spades.
On the defensive end, Maryland will lose Megan Douty, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and a Tewaaraton Award Finalist from two years ago, Casey Pepperman, and Shanna Brady. Those are tough shoes to fill. Those three helped anchor the top-ten Terps defense and they were key reasons why a goalie like Fitzpatrick, who is also done, performed so well.
Maryland will lose some players off the bench like Taylor Salandra, Nicole Aust, and Mattie Meredith but they did not have significant impact in the team's games this season. They were mentors and it was in that role that they contributed most to this year's team.
Who The Terps are Bringing Back
We'll take this in two parts, the offense and the defense.
Taylor Cummings will be back for her senior year. She led the team in assists, draw controls and points and was second in goals. She is the straw that stirs the drink. Cummings has lost only three games over her three years at Maryland. Megan Whittle, the team's leading goal scorer, returns and will only be better after registering the second-highest goal scoring campaign for a freshman in Maryland history. Zoe Stukenberg will be in her third year next season and will continue to develop as a solid middie. She still has some gaps in her game but she has a great nose for the goal, can give you 40 goals in a season and after Cummings, she might be the best passer on this team. She picked up 22 assists last year.
I expect Maryland's efficiency to dip slightly next year because many of the midfielders and attackers will be starting for the first time. Taylor Hensh, Shelby Scanlin, Bryn Boucher, Lindsay Biondi, Bairre Reilly, Deb Milani, and Kacie Longo will all be fighting for starting spots. Hensh should be a starter and Reilly might take over Griffin's spot. Longo and Scanlin were highly touted coming out of high school and might have a slight lead to get major minutes coming into next season but it's anyone's game once the incoming freshman get here. I'll get to them shortly.
The defense is a little more set. Maryland has two very capable goalies in Emily Kift and Emma Moss. Kift has more game experience and I think she is the leader right now. She already has two years under her belt and I think that gives her a slight edge over Moss. Alice Mercer and Nadine Hadnagy will now be one of, if not the best, one-two defensive punch in the nation. I expect to see Steff Holmes and Molly Fleming get time and if Alex McKay can stay healthy, she might get a look as well.
One of the traits that characterized the great Maryland teams of the last five years or so was depth. Next year's team will not be as deep and talented as far as the bench is concerned. That problem might be fixed if the incoming freshman class is able to contribute right away.
Shelby Mercer, Alice's younger sister, has the talent to play right away on the defensive end. Taylor Cummings' sister, Kelsey, will also be joining the Terps. Maryland also gets two Mt. Hebron stars in Jen Giles and Meghan Doherty. Julia Braig could be a solid two-way player for the Terps and look for Caroline Steele to play some minutes on the offensive end.
Those players are all Under Armour All-Americans and Maryland has some other really talented players coming in. Cathy Reese isn't afraid to start freshmen right away. Mercer, Hadnagy, Whittle, Stukenberg and Cummings are all examples of that.
These freshmen could have a big impact and how quickly they adapt will go a long way in determining how high Maryland's ceiling will be next season.
The Bottom Line
The Terps lifted the championship trophy for the second year in a row. Now they have to defend it with what I believe is an objectively less talented team against a tougher group of opponents.
Northwestern got blasted twice by Maryland last season but they have an awful lot of talent coming back and might possibly be favored to beat Maryland on paper when the two teams meet in College Park next season.
UNC loses some key pieces but, like Northwestern, they have a ton of talent returning and next season they will be hosting Maryland in Chapel Hill, a place where the Terps have struggled to win consistently.
Maryland always plays a tough non-conference schedule and Syracuse isn't going away and neither is Florida. Both will be tough. The Big Ten got stronger with the addition of a top-20 team in Johns Hopkins. Now, Maryland will have to face four top-15 opponents as they look to repeat as Big Ten champions. That won't be easy. The Terps split with Ohio State last year and only beat Penn State by three and Michigan by five. They won't beat Northwestern like that again so I expect that game to be close as well.
I have always said that, like Missy Meharg's field hockey teams, Cathy Reese doesn't rebuild, she reloads. This will be one of her most challenging seasons yet because she will have the weight of expectations that come with being two-time defending champions. The team she had last year had been in two straight NCAA Finals and she had almost everyone back from her title team the year before. This coming year will be a different story.
The Terps are champions once again and will look to three-peat next year. That is the bottom line.