By Callie Caplan
In head coach Missy Meharg's 27 seasons at the helm of the Maryland field hockey program, just two classes have graduated without winning a national championship during their Terps tenure.
This year's senior class could become the third, as the Terps have not won a title since 2011. Maryland's second-round NCAA tournament loss to Albany in 2014 ended its 19-4 campaign and left it short of the Final Four for the first time since 2007.
If Meharg, her seniors and the rest of the Terps' third-ranked squad's visions for the 2015 season go according to plan, though, Maryland will be playing for the top trophy in Ann Arbor, Mich., in late November.
Until then, the Terps -- who boast deep veteran leadership along with standout freshman recruits -- have adopted a mantra of "focus" to keep their goals in perspective.
"There's two ways for these young women as seniors to look at that -- they can look at that as pressure, and they can make the situation very stressful, or they can look at that as opportunity," Meharg said. "We've come down to the word ‘focus,' and that means being able to go to something, some mental edge and security, that puts you in the game plan."
Leading the class of seniors is Sarah Sprink, last season's Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and a first-team All-American selection. The Germany native earned a spot on the Big Ten's players to watch list in the preseason, along with senior midfielder Anna Dessoye and freshman forward/midfielder Linnea Gonzales.
Sprink will team up with defender Kasey Tapman, the Terps' last active player from the 2011 championship squad because she redshirted her freshman year, to serve as Maryland's captains. They'll be responsible for helping the Terps integrate five new players into the starting lineup.
Gonzales highlights the Terps' incoming freshman class. The Patterson Mill High School (Bel Air, Md.) product was The Baltimore Sun All-Metro Player of the Year in 2013. She and Terps teammate and starting sophomore defender Carrie Hanks are also part of the U.S. Under-21 team.
"What's so special about [Linnea] is she's going to frame the goal cage," Meharg said. "The ability to do things separately with her hands and her stick from her footwork are world class."
Among the five players the Terps lost to graduation was goalkeeper Brooke Cabrera. Senior goalie Jill Genovese has been waiting in the wings and appears poised to take over Cabrera's spot in the Terps' backline.
Maryland can also rotate freshman Sarah Holliday and redshirt freshman Melissa Flowe into the cage to diversify its defense.
"[We] have three goalies that are completely different from each other, but all have such strong qualities individually," Sprink said. "Whatever we need for an opponent or if some goalie has an incredible week, we're ready to play with that goalie."
The Terps' depth will be put to the test from the start of the season. They open Big Ten play against preseason No. 10 Northwestern. The Wildcats handed the Terps losses in the regular season and Big Ten tournament championship last year, and they come to College Park, Md., Sept. 18.
In Maryland's quest to return to the Final Four, it will have to navigate its second campaign in the conference around five other Big Ten schools -- Northwestern, Penn State, Michigan, Iowa and Michigan State -- ranked in the top 20 to open the season.
But Meharg and her players are confident they can keep their "focus" and deliver the championship that has evaded the program in recent years.
"We're really focused, and we're really fit," Dessoye said. "We have just one common goal between all of us."