This year's Maryland men's soccer team stamped its signature on the program with its first Final Four appearance in 29 years. Yet the Terrapins' most impressive run in three decades didn't start with the NCAA tournament.
Go back two months, when Maryland sat at the crossroads of its season with a 9-5 record and an NCAA tournament bid in question. That's when the Terps' inexperienced back line became more composed and their attack settled into more organized scoring strikes.
Maryland (16-8) won seven of its final 10 games, with two of its losses to top-ranked Clemson, and advanced to within one step of the national championship game. Maryland's dreams of winning its second national championship in the 45-year history of the program were stolen away on Friday night, when Stanford escaped with a 1-0 victory in Richmond, Va.
"I'm very proud of this group of players," Maryland coach Sasho Cirovski said. "They never gave up during the regular season and they didn't tonight.
"The best thing to say is, when I became a head coach, I always had two goals in mind when I came to the showcase event: One is to win a national championship, and secondly, play the best soccer we're capable of playing.
"Today, we didn't achieve the first goal, but I really felt we achieved the second. That's why this is so tough to take."
The No. 18 Terps, who underachieved for most of the regular season, truly found their niche in the NCAA tournament. Fifth in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Terps lasted longer in the tournament than any conference rivals.
This team, despite more regular-season losses than the previous four Maryland NCAA contenders, became the only one to make it past the round of 16.
However, unlike its recent NCAA tournament trips, Maryland had a relatively easy path to the Final Four and took full advantage.
Entering the NCAA tournament as a bubble team, the Terps hoped at best to play host to a first-round game. Instead, upsets to No. 3 Duke and No. 6 UCLA allowed Maryland to keep home-field advantage and not face a seeded team for the first three rounds.
The Terps, who had exited the NCAA tournament in the second round the past four years, seemed to have their youth and veterans jell as the season progressed as they methodically disposed of Richmond in the first round, Jacksonville in the second and Creighton in the quarterfinals.
Up front, senior midfielders Keith Beach and Randy Merkel consistently created chances for freshman Taylor Twellman, sophomore Kirk Miller and junior Jason Cropley. Freshman defenders Nick Downing, Beckett Hollenbach and Dan Califf matured throughout the season and shut down counterattacks in the tournament.
In the first three rounds, Maryland outshot its opponents, 40-15, and never trailed at any point.
That's until Stanford scored off Lee Morrison's header late in the first half of the national semifinal game. The ball sailed over the defense, hitting the far right post and then Hollenbach's left hip, where it caromed into the goal.
"We're very fortunate to get the victory," Stanford coach Bobby Clark said. "Maryland has to leave here feeling very unlucky."
L But Maryland will probably return next season even stronger.
The youngest of this year's Final Four teams, the Terps lose just three midfielders and return goalkeeper Christian Lewis, their entire defense as well as 68 percent of their goal production.
So although Maryland's season ended on a fluke, the Terps' Final Four appearance should not be considered one. With most of its starting lineup intact and another top-notch recruiting class, Maryland will likely be in the top five of most preseason polls and a preseason favorite for the ACC title.
"We want to be a great program for a long time," Cirovski said. "We've gone through some heartaches over the past four seasons. It's no different than a beautiful tree growing and developing great branches. And we have withstood winds and hurricanes. That's the type of program we're building here."
Pub Date: 12/13/98