The women's lacrosse season had not even begun when the critics started pointing fingers at Maryland's defense.
The Terrapins knew what they were saying, too -- with an all-new defensive unit, Maryland probably could not win a fourth straight national championship.
Maryland, which plays North Carolina tonight in the NCAA national semifinals at UMBC, started the season with no starters and not a lot of experience returning on line defense. The only strength seemed to be Alex Kahoe, last year's Co-Atlantic Coast Conference Goalie of the Year.
When Maryland lost its first two games, to Duke and North Carolina, even more fingers pointed at the defense.
"It made us mad," said senior defender Kathleen "Beanie" Lund, "and it brought the defense together a lot more."
The Terps' ninth straight trip to the Final Four this weekend is due largely to the growth of their defensive unit -- Lund, Helena Herrmann and Tonia Porras as well as Kristin Sommar and Christie Jenkins, who alternate the fourth spot behind the restraining line.
Coach Cindy Timchal said it was just a matter of time to develop that cohesiveness.
"Each game is the best teacher," Timchal said. "They've grown from playing a tough schedule and recognizing all the different styles of offense. Their focus is to play together as a team instead of relying on one defender to carry the team."
Since the early losses, the Terps have fallen only once, 12-10 to North Carolina in the ACC tournament. They have won 12 games against ranked teams, including an 11-8 victory over Virginia, which is now No. 1 and the top seed in the tournament.
The Terps' defense is giving up just 7.47 goals a game and has allowed no team more than 12. They held No. 4 Dartmouth, which leads the nation with 14.8 goals per game, to its lowest total of the season in a 16-7 Terps win.
"We really feel confident with each other now," Herrmann said. "We know that as individuals we don't have to feel alone out there. We are a team, especially the four of us, the other three who come down and Alex."
Timchal assembled this defense from a familiar blueprint -- turning multi-talented midfielders into defenders. Lund has played defense since arriving at Maryland but had been a standout midfielder at John Carroll. Porras, Sommar and Jenkins played mostly midfield last season.
"You're always looking for the best athletes," Timchal said. "You're looking for good footwork and good defensive skills. Part of playing defense is getting the ball safely up field, so you do need some of those offensive skills."
The last piece of the puzzle was bringing back Herrmann, who had not played since 1996 and had left school. When Timchal offered a scholarship, Herrmann said, she jumped at the chance to return to the Terps and to finish her degree.
With all the players in place, the Terps then faced the biggest rule change to hit the women's game in years -- the restraining line, which limits each team to seven field players inside the 30-yard line.
Staying onside wasn't a problem, but having fewer attack players spread farther apart presented a challenge.
"There's not as much help," Lund said, "because everyone is spread out more. A lot of teams try to spread the defense so you can't double. In the past, a lot of our defense was based on having an extra person come down just to run around and double the ball. Now, there's more pressure on each individual."
The No. 3 Terps face a tough defensive battle against high-powered No. 2 North Carolina in tonight's 8: 30 semifinal at UMBC Stadium.
The Tar Heels have beaten the Terps in two close games, but the Terps know what will be waiting if they can win just two more games.
"For me personally, it would probably be the most gratifying [title], because we've come the farthest," Herrmann said.
Pub Date: 5/15/98