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Maryland lacrosse has another chance at a historic championship weekend

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Both teams are in the Final Four again, with a chance to do something special.

Photos from USA Today Sports / Illustration by Alex Littlehales

Maryland lacrosse’s 2016 season met a bitter end on Memorial Day weekend, as both the men’s and women’s teams dropped their respective title games to North Carolina. The women’s loss was the first of a previously 22-0 season, while the men’s defeat was a sudden-death heartbreaker.

One year later, both teams are right back in the Final Four.

They’ll follow a familiar schedule. The women will play Penn State on Friday for a chance to face either Boston College or Navy on Sunday. The men match up against Denver on Saturday, with Towson and Ohio State in the other semifinal. It’s the same routine as last year—and the year before that, and the year before that.

The Terps have taken one of the sport’s toughest accomplishments and made it a regularity. The men are making their fourth straight appearance in the national semifinals and sixth in seven years, while the women are in their ninth straight. That’s a combined 15 Final Fours in the last nine years, including 13 of a possible 14 since 2011.

Both teams’ senior classes have made it this far every year of their career. Head coaches Cathy Reese and John Tillman have reached Memorial Day weekend 15 times, fallen one round shy three times, and never fallen short of the quarterfinals in their respective tenures at Maryland.

Those track records are simply too extraordinary to ignore.

“Having coached for a long time before I got here, having only been to one Final Four, I don’t take that for granted,” Tillman said after beating Albany on Sunday. “I know how hard that is, how special it is, so for these guys to go four straight years, it certainly speaks to the talent that we have, just how hard these guys work and how dedicated they are.”

The veteran core is headlined by Matt Rambo, who’s now tied atop the program’s all-time goals list after breaking the points record earlier in the season. This is also the last weekend for Colin Heacock and Dylan Maltz, as well as defensive anchor Tim Muller.

The women’s team’s senior class is 87-3; last year’s seniors entered the Final Four with the exact same record, but finished 88-4. Maryland lost three-time Tewaaraton winner Taylor Cummings after last season, but midfielder Zoe Stukenberg and defender Nadine Hadnagy stepped up and became finalists for the award themselves. Their fourth-year leaps have vaulted this team into its current position.

“Everyone in our grade is different, and everyone brings something different to our team, but everyone is so valuable and everyone would give anything and everything for this team,” Stukenberg said. “I’m really happy for our group, that we were able to accomplish that.”

For all these accomplishments, though, there are still some mountains not yet climbed.

The men’s program has 11 championships in its history, but the last of those came in 1975. This is the Terps’ 20th Final Four since then, and a win will make it 10 chances in the title game. After so many fruitless appearances here, they’re looking to reverse recent history and come out on top.

The women’s team, meanwhile, is two wins away from a completely undefeated season, which is essentially the only thing Reese hasn’t accomplished. Maryland entered last year’s title game 22-0, but never got it going against the Tar Heels. The same thing happened to the Terps in 2013, when UNC took them down in triple overtime.

Reese’s teams have finished with one loss six times; Maryland has entered championship weekend undefeated three times. Two more wins would complete the first undefeated Maryland season since 2001, and the first in the sport since Northwestern in 2009.

Of course, it’s far easier to dream about these things than to achieve them, as so many of these high-stakes weekends have shown in the past. Both teams have shown some vulnerability in this tournament—the men during Bryant’s late first-round charge and the women for about 55 minutes against Stony Brook on Saturday—and similar struggles can easily spell doom this time around.

But there’s reason for optimism, too. Both teams came so close and lost valuable pieces in 2016. They faced question marks before this season and answered them all emphatically. The women regained the No. 1 ranking early, the men seized it late, and neither let it slip. They both entered the NCAA Tournament as top overall seeds again, and both are back in a position they know better than anyone else left.

This weekend, one Maryland team will be gunning for perfection, and another will look to clear the final hurdle for the first time in four decades. If one or both capture the ultimate prize, the tales will last in College Park forever.