Ascending to the top of your sport and capturing a national championship is the ultimate accomplishment for any college program. And it's hard.
Winning the second time is even harder. All-Americans and senior leaders graduate. A new crop of freshmen joins the program. And veterans who may have been role players must step in and play key minutes while taking over leadership roles. The delicate chemistry that creates a championship environment must be recreated, and no two teams take on the same personality.
The University of Maryland women's lacrosse team has won 14 national titles, and head coach Cathy Reese has been a part of 11 of those as a player and coach. The Terps have won three of the past four championships, including last year's. The class of 2017 came within one game of making it a four-year title sweep.
Reese's Terps make it look easy, but she insists that it's not.
This year, Maryland has to replace a National Player of the Year, a National Midfielder of the Year and a National Defender of the Year. The Terps welcome nine freshmen and two transfers.
Most teams in its shoes would be rebuilding, but not Maryland. Despite the losses and new faces, the Terps entered the season as the nation's top-ranked team. They opened with an 18-7 win against William & Mary Feb. 11 and now hit the road to face No. 3 Florida and No. 7 North Carolina Feb. 17 and 24.
The Terps face one of the nations' toughest schedules each year, and this year will play 10 teams ranked in the preseason top 25.
"It's not easy when you graduate such great players who you work with and grow with and really get to know over their four years," said Reese, a three-time National Coach of the Year. "This year is no different. We have a new opportunity to create who we will be in 2018 with nine freshmen and two transfers. That's 11 new faces out of the 36 players on our roster. It's a lot."
As usual, the cupboard is far from bare. Reese's incoming freshman class was ranked third in the nation, and that was without factoring in the two transfers. Senior defender Kathy Rudkin (Syracuse) and junior midfielder Meghan Siverson (Louisville) both figure to play key roles.
National Goalkeeper of the Year Megan Taylor (Glenelg) also returns for her junior year, and the Terps have nine preseason All-Americans.
"We will definitely miss the players from last year who graduated," said junior midfielder Jen Giles (Mt. Hebron), who was named a captain along with classmate Julia Braig (St. Paul's) and seniors Taylor Hensh (Marriotts Ridge) and Megan Whittle (McDonogh)."They were amazing players and people, but every year Cathy does a great job recruiting an amazing class of players to play for us and help replace the players who graduate."
One of those recruits who stepped in and contributed last year is sophomore attacker Brindi Griffin (McDonogh). Griffin was an Under Armour All-American and came to College Park, Md., as the fourth-ranked attack recruit in the country. She played a key role last year, recording 17 goals and six assists in 23 games as a reserve, but even as a top recruit was eased into the system.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Maryland Athletics
This year, Griffin will have a larger role, but she said the transition as a freshman was smooth thanks to the culture Reese has established. Every player is made to feel welcome and important right from the start by the coaches and veterans.
"It's just so welcoming for all the new players, and I think that's something that's so special about Maryland lacrosse," Griffin said."You spend years watching these amazing players and then you get to college and actually get to meet your role models, play with them and learn from them. And you find out that they are so welcoming. They make you understand that you are part of something bigger and that it's a family and a team right away. Being that close helps us so much, and I love being able to help pass that along to our freshmen this year."
Even separately, the players speak the same language, and it echoes what Reese says almost word for word. They talk about Reese's fun practices that keep them loving the game, the depth and talented players they compete against daily who make them better and a one-game-at-a-time mentality in which they focus on doing the things that have made them successful in the past no matter the opponent.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Maryland Athletics
"It all starts with Cathy," Giles said."She always preaches to take it one game at a time and to not look ahead. We try to approach every game as if it's the most important game on our schedule. But she also really tries to stay positive and keep it fun and make sure that we enjoy the moment. If we take care of all the little things, then the big things will work out."
Griffin added that Reese keeps the team grounded and far from complacent.
"It's a new year," she said."Last year was so exciting and fun, but that's behind us. It's a new team with new players, and we get to have our own special journey. It will be so cool to see where that takes us."
Photo Credit: Maryland Athletics