Barely out of high school, soon-to-be Maryland freshmen Ashley Spivey, Riley Barger and Alexis Prior-Brown found themselves this summer competing against U.S. women's soccer national team members Cat Whitehill, Leslie Osborne and Heather O'Reilly.
Spivey, Barger and Prior-Brown, who played high school ball in the Baltimore area, were suiting up for the ASA Chesapeake Charge of the Women's Premier Soccer League and facing a Boston Breakers team filled with stars from the former Women's Professional Soccer.
"[Playing against the pros] I realized that I can play with them," said Spivey, a McDonogh graduate. "You're always nervous the first game you're going against someone that, you know, has won a gold medal in the Olympics, but it's good after the game when you're like, 'OK, you know … I can keep up with them.'"
The realization that the trio could hold their own against some of the world's best players gave them confidence that they could thrive this season at the college level, and they've done just that.
With each playing a significant role, Maryland is off to its best Atlantic Coast Conference start. The seventh-ranked Terps are 6-1-1 with two more conference games left, including a home match against No. 1 Florida State on Oct. 21, before the ACC tournament starts in three weeks.
Using a combination of stout defense and high-risk, high-reward offense, Maryland has compiled an overall record of 11-3-2. The defense has yielded more than one goal to only two opponents, and the offense has two or more goals in all but four games — three of those were losses and one was a scoreless tie against Villanova.
"I feel like I hold the players to a pretty high standard," Maryland coach Jonathan Morgan said. "I think all the players we have here are good players, but do they know how to bring out more out of themselves?
"I think by holding the players to a high standard and the expectations being pretty high for them, it brings more out of the player. I'm a stickler to a lot of the details, and they're always held accountable, and because of that … I think it allows the player to really maximize what their capabilities are."
Spivey, a two-time Baltimore Sun Player of the Year and TopDrawerSoccer.com's sixth-ranked player nationally in the 2012 recruiting class, has played the most of the trio. She has started all 16 games, and has five goals and three assists. On Oct. 7 against visiting North Carolina State, the outside midfielder scored two of the team's three goals in a 3-0 victory.
"Ashley is very creative," Charge coach Albert Oni said. "She's fun to watch, [and] she's an entertainer who gets the job done. You find some people who are entertainers, but they get no results. You know, they might do a cool move, but at the end of the day their success rate isn't high. Ashley … wows the crowds, and she gets results, and she's a clutch player."
Barger, a three-time All-Metro selection at Bryn Mawr, has started in eight of the 13 games she has played in and has been used on both sides of the ball. The midfielder has seven shots, three on goal, and one assist.
"She wins her battles," Oni said. "No matter how challenging the situation, she will rise up to the level of competition at some point during the competition [and] be better than her opponents.
"By playing with us this summer, or playing in the ACC with Maryland, she's placed into that atmosphere, and she rises to the challenge. So some challenges she's already met, and some are above her. But by the time the competition is over, whether it's a practice or a game, she'll make sure that she rises to the occasion. She doesn't settle for second best."
Prior-Brown, a two-time first-team All-Metro pick at Mercy, has played less than Spivey and Barger but has made the most of her opportunities. A forward known for her speed, she has yet to start a match, coming off the bench in 14 games and taking 13 shots, six on goal. She has two assists.
"I sub [in at] 20 minutes, and I think Gabby Galanti and I usually sub on together, and I think we've been contributing trying to keep the energy level high," Prior-Brown said. "Obviously, you know, Hayley [Brock] and Becky [Kaplan] are great forwards, scoring goals left and right, so it's kind of hard to match that, but I think we do a pretty good job to just … not let the game slide down when we sub in."
While a lot of Maryland's best ACC start can be attributed to the trio, the team's success and winning culture has long been in place and developed by first-year head coach Morgan.
In his five years as the Terps' assistant coach, Morgan helped the team to two Sweet 16 appearances (2009, 2010), a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament (2010) and a trip to the ACC championship (2010).
"I'm pretty fortunate that I was given a lot of opportunity to coach, and to train and to do scouting reports and to do a lot of the recruiting," Morgan said. "I think because of my preparation as assistant, it's made my transition here as head coach be pretty smooth.
"It's also helpful that I've known the girls since the recruiting process ... so there's relationships that were already established, and I think that's helped with the transition of me moving into head coach."
During that time, Morgan and some of the current coaching staff began a movement to find and get the best in-state talent to commit to the school.
This year's team has nine players in addition to the freshman trio who are from the state: Bailey Bodell, Kayla Clarke, Shannon Collins, Megan Gibbons (McDonogh), Marisa Kresge (Severna Park), Maisie McCune, Kristene Mumby (Marriotts Ridge), Shade Pratt and Kristen Schmidbauer (Glenelg).
"I think that representing Maryland is a huge honor," said Gibbons, who is seeking a fifth year after suffering a season-ending anterior cruciate ligament injury in the Alabama game Sept. 6. "The soccer program here is the best you could ask for, so why go anywhere else when you can have it in your own state?"
Finding talent within the state hasn't been the coaching staff's only objective, though. Morgan and crew also made a concerted effort to bring the best talent to Maryland.
In 2008, that resulted in the 14th-ranked freshman class in the nation, and this year Spivey, Barger and Prior-Brown were a part of the fifth-ranked recruiting class.
"They're in their hometown, they're solid players and they'll be a good example for all the kids growing up in the community," Oni said. "I think they're going to raise the bar. That whole program is very impressive, and … for the players themselves, I think they're in a great environment to help them accomplish their goals."
Those expectations include an ACC championship, a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and an NCAA championship.
"I think that all of the goals we've set and the expectations everyone has of each other are very reasonable," Barger said. "Even though some of the expectations seem a little harsh, I think that all of those expectations and goals are set to make our team better."