Diamonds and the Maryland men's soccer team have a lot in common.
As coach Sasho Cirovski explains, his team has been forged by pressure, preparation and expectations.
Cirovski doesn't compare Maryland to the jewel for just those three reasons, however, but also because he expects his team's final product to be tough and high-quality.
“We've worked hard to make ourselves the biggest bull's-eye in college soccer,” he said Tuesday as his team prepared for today's NCAA College Cup semifinal against Georgetown in Hoover, Ala. “I don't mind putting pressure on our team and our players, because we feel that that makes us better.
“That's how the hardest substance known to man, the diamond, is formed, and we think we're diamond-tough. We put our guys in tough games, we go play in tough environments [and] we set our standards extremely high, and so when we get into tough games you always see the best of Maryland soccer, and that's what we're going to see on Friday.”
With a 3-1 win over No. 10 Louisville in the quarterfinals Saturday, the No. 2 Terps (20-1-2) avenged a 4-2 loss to the Cardinals in last year's third round and returned to the College Cup for the first time since 2008, when they won their third national title and Cirovski's second.
“We're excited as you can possibly imagine,” Cirovski said. “I'm really proud of this team. As I have said before, the preparation for this moment began, you know, literally days after we lost in last year's round of 16. This was a hungry, committed returning group, and [Patrick Mullins and John Stertzer] are just two of the main figures that led to a transformation of a culture ... to get us back to the College Cup.”
Today, Maryland will face No. 3 Georgetown (19-3-2), which is making its first appearance in the College Cup. The Hoyas, who won the regular-season Big East Conference crown, secured their spot in the semifinals with a 3-1 victory over San Diego.
Georgetown is playing the Terps for the first time since 2009, when it lost, 2-1, in Washington. Maryland leads the Hoyas 28-0 all-time in the series.
The matchup comes with a measure of irony — Maryland athletic director Kevin Anderson has decided to stop scheduling games against Georgetown in any sport until the Hoyas agree to play the Terps in men's basketball.
“We feel [the College Cup] is where we belong,” Cirovski said. “Our goal every year is to be in the College Cup and contend for national titles. …There's always an empty feeling if we're not playing the final weekend. To be back where we belong is a great source of pride, but we're also not content with being there. It's not the endgame for our program. We're hoping that when it's all said and done that we're the last team standing.”
The Terps' offense will be led by Mullins, the Atlantic Coast Conference's Offensive Player of the Year, who recorded personal bests in goals (16), assists (eight) and points (40). The junior forward has also been announced as a semifinalist for the MAC Hermann Trophy, the highest individual award in soccer.
“It's obviously a great honor, and I'm truly blessed and appreciate being honored in that,” Mullins, a New Orleans native, said Tuesday. “Honestly, right now I'm focused more on the team goals and what we're looking to do.”
Mullins will have a lot of support going into today's game. Cirovski said one of the best aspects of this team is that opponents don't know whom to focus on.
This season, 22 Maryland players have scored a goal or recorded an assist. The Terps also lead all top 25 teams with 16 players who have scored at least one goal.
“It's always a good problem to have with players who can step off the bench, step on the field and raise the level,” Stertzer, a senior, said. “Being able to see a lot of the young guys work hard for those minutes and be able to shine is a great feeling.”
Although Maryland is in its 12th straight NCAA tournament and made its record-setting 11th consecutive third-round appearance, Cirovski said his team doesn't necessarily have a “clutch factor.”
“We have a championship fiber,” Cirovski said. “These guys know how to win. They've showed it all year long.”