Maryland reloads instead of rebuilds
We're led to believe that to whom much is given, much is expected.
But sometimes of whom little is expected, much is the opportunity.
No national contender endured more losses between the end of last season and the beginning of this season than Maryland, which makes it all the more remarkable that the Terrapins are winning more often this season than all but one team in the most competitive soccer conference in the country.
With home games remaining against Miami and No. 1 Florida State before the ACC tournament, No. 7 Maryland is alone in second place in the conference and the only team with a realistic chance of wrenching a share of the regular-season title away from the unbeaten Seminoles.
Eight ACC teams are ranked in the top 30 of the RPI this week. In six games against those teams, Maryland is 4-1-1.
Not bad for a team picked by conference coaches before the season to finish seventh. And maybe even a bit of a surprise to those involved.
"We always set really high expectations for ourselves. Every single season that I've been here, our goal has been to make the ACC championship and final four," senior co-captain Olivia Wagner said after Maryland's most recent win, a 3-2 overtime thriller at then-No. 23 Boston College last week. "But we have such a young team, coming out and getting results like this is kind of the icing on the cake, just because we've had to completely rebuild from last year."
Six seniors started their final games for Maryland in last season's Sweet 16 loss at Oklahoma State, the core of a revival that saw the program post a 44-14-9 overall record the past three seasons. In nine seasons between 2000 and 2008, Maryland won a total of just 20 ACC games. In the three seasons preceding the current campaign, it won 15 ACC games. With those starters went six other seniors, almost half of Maryland's roster last season.
It wasn't just building blocks. Maryland lost the architect of the entire project. The coach who twice led Maryland to the Sweet 16, Brian Pensky, departed after seven seasons to take the same position at Tennessee.
Just for good measure, co-captain Megan Gibbons suffered a torn ACL and was lost for the year after just six games. Danielle Hubka, another co-captain this season, has missed the past three games with an injury.
Given that fork in the road, Maryland made a fortuitous decision. Pensky's move out of the conference notwithstanding, an ACC opening will pique the interest of more than a few proven head coaches. Rather than play that game (and, sure, for a school that recently cut sports, the price may also have been right), it turned to an assistant coach who wasn't looking for a promotion.
"Being a head coach wasn't really a big goal of mine," Jonathan Morgan said of his five years as Pensky's assistant. "If somebody like a BCS-type of school came around and it made sense, then I would look at it, but I never really had the drive or the motivation to go find a place.
"To be able to work at Maryland, to coach in the ACC, to coach this type of player, this level of player, that excited me a lot more than just being a head coach at a college."
Trading previous experience as a college coach for some measure of continuity allowed the returning players to breathe a sigh of relief. Seniors such as Wagner, Gibbons, Hubka, Domenica Hodak and Becky Kaplan had gone from the stability of their first three seasons to the prospect of closing out their careers caught between an unfamiliar new coach and a large freshman class that coach didn't recruit.
"We were so happy," Wagner said. "It was kind of scary thinking that we might get a new coach and we'd have to adjust to that in our senior year, but he was also able to secure all the 2012 recruits, which was huge because they were going to be such a big part of our success this year."
When Maryland took the field against North Carolina to open conference play in mid-September, coming off an eyebrow-raising 1-0 loss against Fordham, four freshmen were in the starting lineup. Three of the four reserves who played against the Tar Heels were also freshmen. But in what Morgan called the season's turning point, Maryland came away with a 2-1 win, becoming the first program to beat North Carolina in three successive seasons. A week later came a four-point haul on the most difficult road trip of the season, a draw at Duke and a win at Wake Forest. A 1-0 loss at Virginia Tech remains the only blemish on the conference record.
Maryland's success is the product of its players, of the goal-scoring instincts of Hayley Brock and Kaplan, of leaders like Wagner and the seniors who came up with a plan after last season to pair with incoming freshmen and speed up their adjustment. It's also about a coach who knew what he had to work with.
"He's a perfectionist," Wagner said. "We've kind of been turned into more of a possession team, so I would say that's his soccer philosophy. But within that, everything needs to be perfect and everything is very calculated."
It would require a weekend sweep against the Hurricanes and Seminoles, but the Terrapins could set a program record for conference wins this season and could even win a conference championship. They may not be perfect, but with each passing win against ranked opponents picked to finish ahead of them, they win over skeptics and make even longstanding believers shake their heads and smile.
"It's 'Holy cow, what is this group doing?'" Morgan said. "But they've got this way about them, and they've been able to kind of dig in and find ways to win. I think it has to do with leadership. It has to do with Domenica Hodak; it has to do with Olivia Wagner; it has to do with our seniors, the ones that are out and the ones that are on the field, really pulling us together."
Instead of a season defined by what it lost, Maryland is in the midst of a season in which it can't stop winning.