While Maryland’s prolific attack has drawn nearly all the limelight generated by a 19-0 season and an all-but-certain No. 1 seed when the NCAA tournament field is announced Sunday night, the defense can take a lot of credit for that big, fat zero in the loss column, especially after last weekend’s Atlantic Coast Conference championship.
Terps defenders Iliana Sanza, Melissa Diepold, Kristen McAfee, Shanna Brady, Megan Douty and Alice Mercer held North Carolina to one goal in a nearly 28-minute span through the middle of Sunday’s ACC title game as Maryland turned a 3-2 deficit into a 12-4 lead. Goalie Kasey Howard finished with nine saves, seven in the first half.
Maryland coach Cathy Reese said the defense played its best game of the season in the ACC final.
“These guys have been working all year together to try to fill some holes and step up to make sure that we’re working together as a group,” Reese said, “and we’ve definitely had our ups and downs. We’ve gotten scored on a lot as the season’s gone on. This weekend, especially, I think was the highlight of our season defensively. We played really well. We always had a double on the ball. We always had help. We always had slides there.”
With some new additions to the unit -- fifth-year senior McAfee and freshman Mercer (Century) -- as well as a first-year starting goalie in senior Howard (Broadneck), it always takes a while to get the timing down even though seniors Sanza (St. Paul’s) and Diepold (Perry Hall) and sophomores Brady and Douty started last season. Several attacking midfielders also contribute to the defense on a rotating basis, including reigning Tewaaraton Award winner Katie Schwarzmann (Century), who has shut down some of the nation’s top attack players.
Sanza, last season’s ACC Defender of the Year, said it’s all about the basics.
“Having all the new people, you really just have to stick to the basics that our coaches teach us, basic team defense. I think when you have a lot of new people, it’s really easy to get them to believe in that system, so it just meshes and clicks and works together. With a few of us seniors, me, Kristen McAfee and Melissa Diepold, back there, we know how to communicate that system and then everyone listens and catches on to it.”
The No. 1 Terps went through an early stretch where they gave up more goals than they would have liked to a couple of unranked teams, but after giving up double-digit goals in four straight games, they averaged just 4.2 goals allowed to No. 15 Boston College, No. 7 Stony Brook and William & Mary. They haven’t allowed any of their last five opponents to hit double digits.
“I think the neat part about this group is we definitely have had our challenges,” Reese said. “I think coming in, everyone was a little skeptical about how we would be. We had a new goalie, etc. What we’ve been working towards is having everybody really step up. Our communication needed to get better and better. Iliana’s a leader back there. Everybody knows that. Melissa and Kristen, a fifth-year senior, have done a tremendous job leading the defense. Shanna and Megan started last year as freshmen and now Alice as a freshman has earned her spot.”
Going into the NCAA tournament, the Terps are allowing 8.32 goals per game. They gave up an average of 8.0 in three ACC tournament games.
The defenders are determined to keep the unbeaten streak going, because that’s the only way they can win the national championship. Being undefeated in itself isn’t something they focus on.
“The whole undefeated part doesn’t really faze me,” Sanza said. “We look at everything one game at a time and we’re just like, ‘Did we play our best? This is where we can improve,’ and we’re at it the next day, so it’s awesome that we’ve come away 19-0, but there’s still so much more to do.”
With their fifth straight ACC tournament championship secured, the Terps will open NCAA tournament play next weekend. They will have a bye in the first round May 10 and begin their quest for their 12thnational championship and their first since 2010 on May 12. The Terps have been to the final four for the last four years, reaching the title game in 2011.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun