After 24 games this fall, Maryland men's soccer coach Sasho Cirovski said his freshman are first-year players by designation only, and can shed their rookie labels.
"All of our freshmen now are essentially sophomores," Cirovski said. Freshman goalkeeper Zack Steffen agreed with that sentiment.
"I think lately, since we've been doing well, I've been feeling that way, too," he said. "Our teammates still remind us that we're freshmen, but it does feel like this is not our first year."
The first-year players have contributed heavily to the Terps' success this season, which includes a 16-3-5 record, an Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship, a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament and a Friday night meeting at PPL Park in Chester, Pa., with No. 8 seed Virginia (13-5-5) in the program's 13th appearance in the Final Four.
Midfielder Michael Sauers has scored three goals in the team's past five games, including the game-winner in last Saturday's 2-1 decision against No. 4 seed California in a quarterfinal.
Chris Odoi Atsem and Suli Dainkeh have combined to start 35 of 48 contests at the center back positions, and defender Alex Crognale has made 12 starts. Steffen has started every game this season, registering a 1.11 goals-against average and a .705 save percentage.
Some coaches might hesitate about using so many freshmen in their first year of college soccer, but Cirovski said he had no such reservations.
"I didn't have any predispositions," said Cirovski, who has guided the Terps' program to eight College Cup appearances. "We have a culture that rewards players for performing and contributing. We have a lot of depth and it's been frustrating not to get more time to a lot of players because we've played in so many close games."
That attitude is refreshing to players like Sauers, a Glen Arm native and Archbishop Curley graduate who was a reserve through the first seven contests before becoming a regular in the starting lineup.
"I think that's the right thing to do for a coach," said Sauers, who began the season at left back before moving to the midfield. "It gives everybody a fair chance. If there was a tie between two guys and everyone works hard, whoever performs best in games is obviously going to be the one who plays more. When it comes down to it, it's who performs the best in games."
Despite their youth, the freshmen are treated like their older teammates. Steffen and Sauers said the program's history of success — which includes three national titles, two runner-up finishes and 13 semifinal appearances — vividly remind the rookies of the expectations they face.
"Obviously, it's difficult since we're at one of the best soccer schools in the country," he said. "But all of the upperclassmen have taken us under their wing and have really helped us succeed. Whenever we make a mistake, they're always there to bring us back up. Even when Sash is yelling at us, they always just bring us right back up. So it's really the camaraderie of the team that really gets everybody up, especially the freshmen."
Added Sauers: "It's not a matter of being nervous. It's a matter of contributing. Everyone's trying to win a national championship. You can't be on the field just to have playing time."
Freshmen being freshmen, however, Cirovski conceded that he was concerned that the first-year players would tire physically and mentally after a grueling schedule.
"I think there's a few kids that did hit that wall," he said. "But we were able to take a few kids and give them some relief and then bring them back into the fold. I think a few kids have hit it, but we have enough depth."
Maryland (16-3-5) needs just two more wins to capture the program's first NCAA championship since 2008. The opportunity is palpable, but Steffen said he and his classmates won't allow the situation to burden them.
"It's just two more soccer games," he said. "I think we're going to be a little bit more nervous because it is our first Final Four, but I think we'll be just fine."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun