When the University of Maryland women's lacrosse team takes the field May 25 for its NCAA semifinal game against Boston College, the Terps will be in a familiar setting surrounded by familiar faces.
For the team's seniors, it will mark their fourth Final Four appearance, two of which have resulted in national championships. Maryland, which carries a 17-game winning streak and 20-1 record into the semifinals, faced the same Boston College team in last year's title game, earning a 16-13 victory for a third championship in four seasons.
Adding to the familiarity, the top-seeded Terps face a fourth-seeded Eagle team coached by one of them; former Maryland standout Acacia Walker-Weinstein was an All-American for the Terps and has built Boston College into one of the nation's top programs since taking over in 2012.
Then there are all the Terp lacrosse alums, many of whom who are still in the game as college coaches, who will flock to Stony Brook, N.Y. to support this year's team. Many of the alums who will be there were players current team members idolized growing up.
"It's the coolest thing, and I think that it speaks volumes about the love that they all have for the program," said senior All-American and Tewaaraton Award-candidate Megan Whittle (McDonogh). "We have a saying, 'Once a Terp, always a Terp.' It rings so true. Everyone's always reaching out and supporting you. One of the coolest moments for me was having Jen Adams reach out to me after I broke her record. She was -- and still is -- my idol. For her to be on the sidelines giving us thumbs up and cheering us on is the coolest feeling."
Whittle broke Adams' all-time Maryland mark for career goals April 10 and enters the Final Four with 297 career tallies, second on the NCAA all-time list. She and Boston College junior Sam Apuzzo are the two highest-scoring players left in the tournament. Apuzzo has 81 goals and 37 assists, while Whittle has recorded 83 goals and 15 assists.
Make no mistake, despite Walker-Weinstein's Terp ties, Maryland players and coaches are well aware what a victory against her alma mater would mean to the coach and her program. Terps head coach Cathy Reese, who has been part of 11 Maryland national championships as a player and coach -- including four as the head coach -- knows her team will get the Eagles' best effort.
"They're a really well-coached team that has a very powerful offense," Reese said. "Three of their players have really significant numbers. Sam Apuzzo does an excellent job on the draw. They're good all around. Their defense changes things up throughout the game, which makes it challenging on an offense. So we have our hands full."
Sophomore attacker Brindi Griffin (McDonogh) concurred.
"They are such a good team and so athletic," Griffin said. "I think we're doing everything we can this week to prepare. Cathy definitely just focuses on the little things -- focuses on Maryland lacrosse -- and not so much the outside factors. It's so exciting going to the Final Four that you can almost get ahead of yourself with everything. She just stays with us and has you focusing on all the girls around you and everything at hand and then the big things will take care of themselves."
Maryland closed out its quarterfinal matchup against Navy with a 6-1 scoring run to earn a 17-15 victory May 19. The Terps trailed, 14-11, with 15 minutes left, before senior attacker Taylor Hensh (Marriotts Ridge) scored twice and Whittle snapped a rare 50-minute scoring drought to key the decisive run.
"Navy was a tough team," junior attacker Caroline Steele (Severn) said. "They're tough girls. They are relentless and never give up. We have to play a full 60 minutes. I don't think we did against Navy, and we are still waiting for that perfect game, which is awesome that we still haven't played our best lacrosse. We have to show mental and physical toughness for a full 60 minutes."
Steele, who has 58 goals and 20 assists, is part of a high-powered, yet balanced Maryland offense that boasts five players with 30 or more goals and six with more than 35 points. Similarly, the Eagles have four players with 40 or more goals and five with more than 35 points. Maryland averages better than 16 goals per game, with Boston College slightly below that. The Terps are tied for fourth in the nation in scoring offense, and the Eagles rank 11th.
That balance creates a huge challenge for any defense, but both teams rank among the top defensive units in the nation. Boston College junior goalkeeper Lauren Daly is sixth in the nation in goals-against average (9.26), while Maryland junior Megan Taylor (Glenelg), the returning National Goalkeeper of the Year, ranks 15th (9.67). As a team, the Eagles are seventh in scoring defense, and Maryland is tied for 14th.
"This year it's been a whole different defensive group," Taylor said. "We lost a really good defensive class last year, and people have just been stepping up. Lizzie Colson (Manchester Valley) doesn't even play like a sophomore. She plays like a senior on the field. Grace Griffin (Liberty) is a freshman, but you'd never know it. Julia Braig's leadership on the field. Everyone is just stepping up to an entirely different level"
Apuzzo and Terp sophomore Kali Hartshorn rank 11th and 12th in the nation, respectively, in draw controls per game, so the teams essentially mirror each other in most categories, which should produce another instant classic. The winner will face second-seeded North Carolina (17-3) or third-seeded James Madison (20-1) at noon May 27.
"We're preparing ourselves to be ready to do what we do and to continue doing what we've done all season," Reese said. "We will just focus on Maryland and what we need to be able to do to excel."
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Maryland Athletics