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Friends meet as foes as Timchal leads Navy against Reese and Maryland

Bill Wagner
Contact Reporterbwagner@capgaznews.com

Cathy Nelson was the type of recruit Cindy Timchal simply had to land.

Failure was not an option.

Nelson was arguably the best girls’ lacrosse player in the state of Maryland as a senior at Mount Hebron in Howard County. She was named 1994 Metro Player of the Year by the Baltimore Sun, besting a field at that included two other superstars in Peggy Boutilier (Virginia) from Roland Park Country School and Crista Samaras (Princeton) of Annapolis High.

Nelson was a four-year varsity starter at Mount Hebron and catalyst of three state championship teams under head coach P.J. Kesmodel. She still holds the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association records for most goals (7) and points (8) in a Class 3A state championship game.

Timchal was still in the early years of what would become a legendary 16-year tenure as head coach at Maryland. Timchal already had one national championship under her belt (1992), but was determined to build a dynasty.

It all began with bringing in the finest talent available.

“Our philosophy was to recruit the very best players in the country, especially the ones from in the state,” Timcahal said. “Cathy Nelson was a player I personally recruited to come to Maryland and I was very appreciative and thankful when she said yes.”

Timchal had a slight advantage since Nelson had attended her summer camps at Maryland throughout high school. They would team up to lead one of the most remarkable runs in NCAA history and became close friends along the way.

Nelson arrived in College Park in 1995 and was a key member of four national championship teams. She was a two-time All-American attacker and concluded her career ranked among Maryland’s all-time leaders with 217 points and 140 goals.

“Cathy was a fierce competitor and a wonderful teammate,” Timchal said this week when asked to describe Nelson as a player. “She was a relentless attacker with tremendous stickwork and an undeniable ability to finish.”

Following graduation, Nelson remained at Maryland as an assistant under Timchal for five years. Nelson was on staff as the Terrapins captured three more national titles in 1999, 2000 and 2001.

Maryland remains tied with UCLA men’s basketball for the most consecutive national championships at the Division I level with seven. Nelson was with Timchal for all seven — four as a player and three as an assistant coach.

Fast forward nearly two decades and those two find themselves as opponents. Cathy Nelson Reese is now head coach at Maryland, the defending national champion. Timchal left Maryland to lead the fledgling program at Navy, which she has steadily built into a national contender in its own right.

“Cindy is someone I really admire and respect, someone I have learned an awful lot from,” Reese said. “During my playing career and early coaching career, Cindy’s influence was pretty much all I knew. I just cannot say enough about how important a mentor she has been.”

On Saturday at high noon, the Midshipmen and Terrapins will square off in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament. That matchup, being held at the Maryland Field Hockey and Lacrosse Complex, marks just the second meeting between the schools and head coaches.

“We don’t play Navy during the regular season because Cindy and I are such close friends,” Reese said. “So this game is going to be special. I love Cindy to death and always wish her the best, but I also want badly to beat her on Saturday.”

GOING THEIR SEPARATE WAYS

Reese left Maryland in 2004 to become head coach at the University of Denver, leading that young program to just its second winning season and a berth in the Mountain-Pacific Sports Federation championship game.

Timchal stunned the women’s lacrosse world when she accepted the Navy job, bringing an abrupt end to the most successful coaching stint in the sport’s history. She compiled a 260-46 record at Maryland with eight national championships.

Reese was asked if she was surprised to hear that Timchal was leaving Maryland.

“Not really. Cindy had done so much at Maryland, putting together that string of seven straight national championships that is never going to be matched,” Reese said. “I think she was ready for a new challenge. What a great opportunity for Cindy to build a brand new program from the ground up at Navy. And look what she has done. She has turned Navy into a consistent Top 20 program.”

While working in Denver, Reese returned to College Park every summer to work Timchal’s camps. As one of the greatest players in program history and a former assistant during the glory years, she was at the top of athletic director Debbie Yow’s list to succeed Timchal.

“When I talked to Cindy about coming back to Maryland she kind of gave me her blessing by saying ‘Cathy, this is really something you have got to do.’ That meant a lot and made me feel more comfortable about taking the job,” Reese said.

Reese has more than lived up to the standard set by Timchal, reinvigorating a Maryland proud program that did not advance past the quarterfinals for seven of eight seasons from 2002 through 2009.

Maryland has captured four more national championships under the direction of Reese, who has compiled a phenomenal 247-20 record in 12 seasons at the helm. Last season, the Terrapins matched the Division I record set by the 2001 squad by finishing 23-0.

Now Timchal is confronting what so many opposing coaches did when she was at Maryland: How do you take down a perennial powerhouse and defending national champ that boasts a roster loaded with Under Armour All-Americans?

“We know and respect the Maryland women’s lacrosse program and what it has stood for over the years,” Timchal said this week. “Maryland women’s lacrosse has been dominant for decades. The tradition and history of the program attracts the best of the best. As always, it is a very well-coached and extremely talented team.”

EVOLVING RELATIONSHIP

It is interesting to hear Timchal talk about the Maryland program in the abstract considering she was largely responsible for creating that tradition and history.

“It feels a little uncomfortable for me to take any credit. I deflect all the credit to the players that competed on the field for me,” she said.

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday at the Maryland Field Hockey and Lacrosse Complex, Reese was asked about her relationship with Timchal. It has evolved from player-coach to colleague to respected opponents — all the while developing a strong friendship.

“I learned a lot about how to be a coach from Cindy then developed my own path from there,” Reese said.

Reese has developed her own coaching style over the years while incorporating some of the basic philosophies Timchal espoused.

“Back when I played, Cindy gave us the freedom to be creative. She made the sport fun and just allowed us to go out and play without complicating things,” Reese said. “That is something I really took from Cindy. Because there can be a tendency as a coach to over-analyze and to try to implement too much structure. I want my players to feel a sense of freedom and play the game the way they know how. To have fun, enjoy each other and play for the love of the game.”

Reese got to know her mentor very well after nine straight years together. She laughed when talking about some of Timchal’s sideline antics, which are still the stuff of legend. Reese and fellow Maryland assistant Gary Gait marveled at how Timchal followed the ball

“In the old days you could coach on the other side of the opposing team’s bench. Cindy would literally run laps behind the bench,” Reese recalled. “Gary and I would be on the offensive end and Cindy would sprint to the defensive end when the ball was down there then sprint back to the offensive end when we gained possession.”

Timchal still walks (or jogs) many miles per game, but current rules restrict her to remaining in the area of the Navy bench. However, she still berates officials and vents to assistants the way she did while at Maryland.

“Cindy is a wild one as we all know, but that is what I absolutely love about her,” Reese said. “Anyone who has ever played or worked for Cindy could probably write a book because there are so many great stories. Those people that really know Cindy understand exactly what I am talking about.”

Reese drew a wry smile was asked to elaborate.

“Oh, just things Cindy has said during pregame speeches or postgame conversations or some of the things she does to motivate the team,” Reese said. “Cindy is a lot of fun. If you have the opportunity to be down on the sideline listening to some of the things she yells during the game it will make you chuckle.”

Personality quirks aside, Timchal is the standard-bearer when it comes to women’s lacrosse and already a member of the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame. She is the all-time winningest coach in Division I history with a gaudy career record of 509-132 over 36 seasons at Northwestern, Maryland and Navy.

Navy, which transitioned from club to varsity status under Timchal’s guidance, is 172-46 in its 11 seasons of existence.

“You always know that a Cindy Timchal-coached team is really going to compete because that is the very essence of what she stands for as a coach,” Reese said. “I have so much respect for what Cindy has accomplished in the sport. She has such a big heart, an incredible passion for teaching the sport and cares so much about her players.”

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