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How Maryland women’s lacrosse built an undefeated team

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The Terps’ success is due to more than just a talented roster.

NCAA Lacrosse: Women's Championships Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Over the last four years, Maryland women’s lacrosse has as many national championships as it does losses: three. The Terps are also undefeated in College Park in that span, and have made nine straight Final Fours.

It’s difficult to sustain this much winning over one season, but it’s even harder to do so over four, let alone nine. Yet, Maryland continues to find new ways to win and new records to break.

There are levels to the Terps’ success. Between great players, great people and great coaches, Maryland continues to show what it takes to build a sustainable winner.

The talent

Maryland’s recruiting classes are, year-in and year-out, some of the best. Of the 34 players on Maryland’s roster, half were in the top 30 of Inside Lacrosse’s incoming recruits for their freshman season. Over the past four years, the Terps recruited five top-five prospects, three of which came in this season. Megan Whittle is the only No. 1 overall recruit on the roster, and Zoe Stukenberg was the No. 3 recruit in 2013.

This year’s recruiting class featured six top-30 prospects. Lizzie Colson, Brindi Griffin and Hannah Warther were all in the top five. Down the stretch, Colson, Griffin and the No. 29 recruit Kali Hartshorn played massive roles for Maryland.

“I thought that Kali and Lizzie both played well beyond their years today, I was so proud of the way they both, just every draw, battled it out,” Stukenberg said after Maryland’s quarterfinal comeback against Stony Brook. “That shows what outstanding players they are and the type of people they are. The fact that in the second half, you’re a freshman, you’re losing, [and] this is to go to the Final Four and it didn’t faze them.”

Hartshorn was the only freshman to make an immediate impact after earning the start in the draw circle from day one. She scored 58 goals and collected 112 draws this year, both better freshman-year statistics than the player she replaced, Taylor Cummings.

“Every year there’s always a couple freshmen, or one or two, that come up and really step up, and this is Kali this year,” Whittle said earlier in the season. “To be able to step on the field coming out of high school, do the draw, get it every time and be such a staple in our offense, it’s really exciting. The best part is, I don’t even think she’s hit her peak yet.”

Maryland’s offense finished with six 30-goal scorers and five 70-point scorers. The Terps’ defense, led by Nadine Hadnagy, remained steady all year, despite a few injuries along the way.

Finally, there’s the goalkeeper. Megan Taylor didn’t play her best in the NCAA Tournament, but but she still finished the year with a .528 save percentage, good for third in the country. Her ability to make difficult saves allowed the rest of the team to settle into their games.

“I’ve been playing with her since we were probably 7, we grew up together, and she just keeps getting better,” Whittle said after Taylor made 18 saves against Syracuse in early March. “It’s a really big confidence booster for all of us [to have her in goal]. …She’s the backbone of our team.”

The coach

From 1992-2001, Maryland won eight national championships, including seven straight, under the guide of Cindy Timchal. Now the head coach of Navy, which lost to Boston College in the semifinals, Timchal has influenced the entire sport during her career. Many current head coaches either played for or coached with Timchal; each of the three other Final Four coaches fits that description.

Cathy Reese did both. She played for Maryland from 1995-98, then spent five seasons as a Maryland assistant and three as the head coach at Denver before replacing Timchal in 2007.

Now, Reese has coached four national championship teams, and been a member of 10 total championship teams at Maryland. Since Reese took over for the 2007 season, the Terps have made every NCAA Tournament, and have participated in each of the last nine Final Fours.

Every team’s success starts at the top. To win this much, a team needs a source of stability, especially a college team that changes players constantly. For Maryland, Reese has become that constant.

“I love Cathy,” Stukenberg said. “I just can't speak highly enough of her. We're not just lacrosse players to her.”

Reese does more than coach a team. She molds people, aiming for something bigger than the national championship.

“You see a lot of people continuing with lacrosse, and that's our hope: That people love the sport so much and they're passionate about it that they want to continue to be involved,” Reese said. “I'm proud to have played for Cindy and moved on and continued to have the opportunities that I have … so hopefully our players will continue that way as well.”

The mentality

Earlier this season, Whittle used a simple motto to describe the team’s focus.

“Expect nothing, be ready for anything,” she said.

These six words perfectly describe how Maryland prepared for each game. Not once did the Terps seem surprised by what the opponent threw at them, nor did they complain. They just took everything one game, one half, one possession at a time.

Maryland’s players were so in-the-zone during the championship game, they didn’t even know what they had just accomplished.

“Zoe turns around at the end, the game is over and she says, ‘Wait, we didn't lose. Did we just go undefeated this year?’” Reese said. “It was something we didn't talk about, we didn't discuss it. We did things one game at a time.”

Having this much success makes for so many memories on the field. Yet, these players make just as many memories away from lacrosse as they do playing the game.

“What I'm going to remember is the person I became, and hopefully continue to become.” Stukenberg said. “My teammates and my coaches were always there for me, and that's what I'll always remember, those moments when you really don't know how you're going to get to dinner, and Cathy looks you in the eyes and says it's all going to be OK. That's Maryland.”

This mentality allowed Maryland to exploit its balance and talent with unselfish play. Everyone is on the same page, and it makes the game that much easier to succeed.

“No one's selfish,” sophomore Caroline Steele said. “No one has been selfish all year, and I think that's what makes it so great. I think that picked us up at halftime [and] all season, and we got it done.”

On Sunday, Steele had six goals to lead the team, but she didn’t take the credit. Just like everyone else does, she said it was a team effort that led them to victory.

“It always is,” she said.