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No pain, no gain: Maryland women’s lacrosse is ready for the moment after an unorthodox two seasons

The Terps are back in the Final Four after a shortened 2020 season and a lackluster 2021 campaign.

Photo courtesy of the Big Ten.

Over spring break, the Maryland women’s lacrosse team took a trip to Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia, Maryland, to see Spamalot. It was the perfect team bonding experience.

Filled with laughter and jokes, the team enjoyed an unfiltered and restriction-less time together. It made junior midfielder Shaylan Ahearn realize that this is where she belongs.

“This is real life; I am a part of the team,” Ahearn said. “Yes, it’s been three years in that I’ve finally been able to have that full experience, but I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything.”

Ahearn, like so many other players on the team, had yet to enjoy an uninterrupted collegiate lacrosse season prior to 2022.

In 2020, the Terps participated in just six games before the coronavirus pandemic swooped in and shut everything down. With the virus still lingering a year later, the Terps played a conference-only slate of games with limited, if not any, fans in attendance.

Peculiar doesn’t do it any justice. These past two years have been otherworldly. But Ahearn and the rest of the team has come out the other end stronger than ever, leading to the team’s arrival in Baltimore for the 2022 Final Four.

Although the path there wasn’t any different than what other teams have had to go through, the leadership and culture of the program has made the transition a seamless one.

Ever since Reese began her tenure in 2007, Maryland has continued its culture of excellence.

Under Sue Tyler and Cindy Timchal, the Terrapins compiled nine NCAA Tournament titles. Since Reese began her tenure, the program has secured the national championship five times and made the Final Four 11 straight times from 2009 to 2019.

The all-time winningest coach in Maryland history showed no signs of slowing down after securing a national title in 2019. But the last two seasons interrupted the trail of success.

After overcoming a difficult start, the Terps were just starting to figure things out before their 2020 season was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a blindside of epic proportions, but the writing was on the wall on that fateful day during practice.

“We kind of knew that once the Patriot League canceled [after the Ivy League] it was like, ‘OK this isn’t going to be good,’” Reese said.

The preparation for Rutgers soon turned into a party. The let-loose nature of the practice pointed toward the announcement. Then, after practice, Reese ripped the band-aid off.

“You couldn’t look at anyone in the huddle because if you made eye contact with someone you’re gonna start crying,” graduate midfielder Grace Griffin said. “It was just that there was so much emotion, so many unanswered questions that it was just a really devastating moment overall.”

The world changed for everyone and the landscape of collegiate athletics followed suit.

Players were granted extra years of eligibility, and upon the slow wave of reopening, heavy restrictions were put in place. The Terps got a taste of that during fall practices, but nothing could prepare them for their conference-only slate in the spring of 2021.

In the fall, the team couldn’t practice at full strength due to social distancing. In the spring, while they got to share the field all together, a different set of challenges emerged. Testing occurred six days a week, creating an unforeseen mental obstacle that stuck with the Terps all season.

“We wanted to have the chance to practice and play and compete, but you also were afraid of being a problem, of being someone that is spreading it,” Reese said. “Everyone was trying to do the right thing, you just didn’t want to mess up.”

With limited opportunities to bond off the field, Maryland suffered on the field. The unorthodox landscape only magnified the team’s consistency struggles as they flashed prowess on both ends of the field, but they failed to put it together.

This led to an earlier than usual exit for the Terps, as the team lost in the second round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament against Duke. With all of the COVID-restrictions, Maryland had no different excuse than the rest of the country, casting a shadow of doubt on the sustainability of Reese’s success.

All of the uncertainty off the field clouded the performance on the field. But with the world slowly opening back up again, the women’s lacrosse landscape changed back to Maryland’s level of comfort.

The team has reaped the benefits of the inclusive society we live in today. Transitioning from an isolated past two years, the younger players have been able to grow accustomed to the full collegiate athletics experience and hold themselves to a higher accord.

“All of them in their own way came out this year hungry and passionate and ready to do whatever they needed to do for Maryland,” Reese said. “That’s what makes a team great; when we can all be ourselves and bring what we can bring to the table together, so that we can bring out the best in each other.”

The 2021 season was a period of maturation for the junior class — players who experienced just six games of normal collegiate lacrosse in their careers. Players like Ahearn worked on their individual growth with the little things, which helped build toward a better end product in 2022.

It still came with as many positives as negatives, however.

“Once you played one game you almost got to redo it if it didn’t turn out the way you wanted to,” Ahearn said. “As for the negatives, we weren’t exposed to that other style of play that the ACC and other leagues have. The ACC has a lot of fast play and we didn’t have any exposure to that until we got into the tournament.”

In a poetic way, the Terps fell to an ACC powerhouse in the 2021 NCAA Tournament, but fast forward a year later and the team avenged its loss to Duke. Through individual growth and the adjustment to playing varying styles, Maryland was better prepared this time around.

“I wouldn’t take the past two years back for anything. I think we grew so much. We wouldn’t be the team we are today without that,” Griffin said. “Everyone on the field has grown, and I think through the adversity, we’ve learned from it.”

The individual maturation combined into a collective team synergy, even as the team welcomed in a boatload of new freshman and high-profile transfers. Reese credits the leadership of Griffin for molding this team into a competitor.

“She wears her heart on her sleeve and just wants to make things great for everyone,” Reese said. “To watch her have all of these different experiences and grow to then become the leader that she wants to be this year has been remarkable.”

Graduate defender Torie Barretta, who suffered a torn ACL midseason, has also been crucial to the team’s success this season.

“With her injury, she is stepping up as a leader even more,” Reese said. “She speaks to the team after every game and she’s always on the sidelines helping coaches. I need her like our team needs her and we need her constant vote of support and encouragement and toughness and passion.”

Those two meshed well with the newfound leadership role that the junior class had been thrust into. Having gone through what they have gone through, players like Ahearn, attackers Hannah Leubecker and Libby May, and goalkeeper Emily Sterling have let both their play and leadership roles carry them throughout the return to normalcy.

Leubecker and May poured in over 50 goals each, providing an excellent cushion to the Maryland attack. Meanwhile, Sterling led the country in save percentage and really fit into her role as the season progressed.

All the pieces fit together perfectly, leading to Maryland’s return to the top of polls. Aside from a single-game hiccup in late-March, the Terps have been among the country’s most feared teams.

After sweeping the Big Ten to win the conference tournament title, Maryland received the No. 2 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Terps were handed a bye to the second round, where they awaited the Blue Devils.

Only this time, it was on its home field.

From the opening draw to the final buzzer, Maryland dictated the tempo of the matchup. Its 19-6 victory was indicative of not only how far the team had come over the past two peculiar seasons, but how much the individuals on the team have grown.

Ahearn stood out above the rest, dominating the nation’s leader in draw controls, senior attacker Maddie Jenner. All of her individual work over the pandemic lockdown came to define her moment in the spotlight. After a tumultuous two years, Ahearn embodied the resilience of the team.

As integral as the individual growth was in creating a final product that has a legitimate shot at winning the national championship, the team’s rekindled chemistry due to the lessening restrictions made this season possible.

“Not getting that [2020] season definitely hurt a few of us, but it also allowed us to have a test run,” Ahearn said. “It was a blessing and a curse. Now that I finally have a normal spring I see the difference [with team chemistry].”

The team built chemistry throughout the season in various ways. From the Spamalot performance, to sharing a team retirement celebration with longtime equipment manager Jim Knight, the Terps rediscovered the bond built over personal interactions.

The team didn’t overlook the little things. Senior defender Maddie Sanchez and sophomore attacker Chrissy Thomas’s Thumbs Up show embraced the camaraderie that the team could enjoy with one another. And the latest snippet of graduate defender Abby Bosco interacting with the Maryland baseball team only furthered that notion.

But a pregame party before the Princeton game stands out.

Bringing only one speaker to its April 13 game despite there being two locker rooms, the Terps jammed out to Miley Cyrus and some throwback High School Musical tracks across the way from each other.

“Not just dancing but also singing. Sort of multi-talented Terps,” Griffin said.

It was a titular moment for the Terps as they did what they do best — prepare for a dog fight and have fun while doing it.

Letting loose off the field has translated to its on the field play. This has set up Maryland with a chance at securing a spot in the national championship game on May 27 against Boston College.

Maryland hasn’t seen Boston College since the two matched up in the national title game in 2019. While the Eagles went on to win the national title in 2021, Maryland took a bit longer to get back to this point. But the fortitude built over the past two years paved the way.

“Every year is different, every challenge is different, every team makeup is different, but we all share the same vision,” Reese said.

A year ago the world was a lot different as Maryland struggled to adjust to the pandemic. But it seems that that was all it took to remove the Terps from the national title picture.

“You can have problems, you can have challenges, but if you don’t learn from it you’re not going to get anywhere,” Griffin said. “We took every lesson that we’ve had these past few years and we’ve applied it. You can see that on the field. You can see how happy we are just to be with one another. This team’s chemistry is something that’s so special.”