Navy women's lacrosse coach Cindy Timchal expected eventually to have to play No. 1 Maryland, the program she guided to eight national championships during 16 years in College Park. She's happy the return ticket came so soon.
In just their fourth season as a varsity program, the Midshipmen are in the NCAA tournament for a second straight time. They won the last two Patriot League titles and then moved into the 16-team tournament field by winning one of two play-in games.
This year, that put them on a collision course with the top-seeded Terrapins, the defending national champions. Saturday at noon, Timchal will return to the sidelines at Maryland for the first time since she left the Terps in 2006 to turn Navy's club into a Division I program.
She doesn't wax nostalgic about her return. She's far too focused on Navy to reflect much on the past.
"I came to Navy to establish a winning tradition and to start women's lacrosse at a service academy and now here we are in the NCAA tournament, playing the No. 1 team in the country. It doesn't get much better than that."
Timchal has been on the visitor's side against Maryland before. Back when she coached at Northwestern, from 1982 to 1990, the Wildcats played the Terps a few times and beat them once.
"I've been on the other side, but I'm here [at Navy] and we're just totally dedicated to this team and these young women. Once the whistle blows you are totally focused and for our players, we're putting them in the best situation to be as successful as possible."
Timchal knows something about success.
In her 29th year as a head coach, she has 394 wins — more than any other lacrosse coach in NCAA history — men's or women's. She is making her 23rd trip to the NCAA tournament, having taken Maryland 16 times and Northwestern, five.
"She can build a program anywhere she goes," Sheehan Stanwick Burch, women's lacrosse analyst for CBS Sports Network, said. "She is so talented and she has a way of spreading the love of the game, which is demonstrated by how many players under her have gone on to coach and continue to be part of the game. I think a lot of that comes from her and the winning success at Maryland."
Navy has gotten better every year, and Timchal played nationally ranked programs such as No. 2 Northwestern and No. 15 William & Mary this year. In the second game of the season, the Mids beat Ohio State, which is now ranked 17th. Last year, they played then-No. 3 Duke and William & Mary and then met third-seeded North Carolina in the first round of the NCAA tournament, falling 18-5.
The Midshipmen (15-5) earned their first national ranking last season but did not break into the polls in 2011. Still, they're on an upward course and haven't come close to a losing season with Timchal going 58-18 at the Navy helm.
Cathy Reese, who played on four of Timchal's national title teams, took over at her alma mater when Timchal left and has maintained the success. She had the Terps reaching the quarterfinals her first season, making the semifinals her third and wearing the crown in her fourth.
Facing her mentor on the field isn't anything new. When Reese coached at Denver, the Pioneers played Timchal's Terps. Still, it will be a bit strange to see Timchal on the visitors' side.
"It's definitely different," Reese said. "My whole career had been playing for her for four years or coaching alongside her for five years and we played her when I was in Denver, but I've never had that other experience [of facing Timchal on the visitors' sideline]. I don't know how it's going to be."
For Navy, playing Maryland isn't about nostalgia. Timchal's players know about her success at Maryland, but they want to make their own success and build their program to a level that could rival the Terps.
Timchal said that's a tougher task every day with the growth of the women's college game. This year's tournament field includes three newcomers — Florida, Boston College and Albany — and young programs are challenging perennially strong programs such as Maryland, Virginia and Princeton, which have combined for 15 titles in the last 20 years.
The other five crowns belong to Northwestern, which proved it is possible to reach the top quickly, winning in 2005, just three years after being reinstated as a varsity program. Florida is in the tournament in only its second season.
"Every game is so important," Timchal said, "and for Navy to make a statement that it wasn't a fluke last year when we won [the Patriot League], won the play-in game and won it again this year put us in a situation where I think people were always dreaming of a Navy-Maryland matchup, because everybody loves the local matchups. For us, this is the true progression of what we wanted to see."