With the worst shooting slump of his life behind him, the old man has pronounced himself ready for the final run of his collegiate career.
Brian Zeller, 22, Maryland's fifth-year senior midfielder, welcomes the jokes about his hair loss. Terps coach Dick Edell does not hesitate to oblige the former Loyola High standout on matters of the pate.
But Edell and Zeller were not laughing about a scoring drought that had begun to wipe the customary smile off of Zeller's face and drain the confidence from one of Maryland's more potent weapons.
The numbers still amaze Zeller. Through this year's first 10 games, he had produced five goals on 57 shots. This, from a former second-team All-America player who had helped push the Terps into national championship game appearances in 1997 and 1998. This, from a player who had scored 44 goals over his previous two seasons."It was a gradual thing. I was getting tons of shots, but I wasn't hitting the goal," Zeller said. "Then I started passing up shots I used to take, because I started thinking too much. It became a mental thing. I just wasn't going out there with the confidence I needed."
So Zeller, who eventually stopped drawing long-stick defenders, made changes. Lots of them.
He tried a new stick, then another, and another. He changed his number from 24 back to his old No. 10 at midseason. Zeller had decided to wear the number of his former teammate, attackman Scott Hochstadt - now a student assistant coach - to honor the senior class that failed to make the NCAA tournament a year ago.
Finally, an old high school teammate re-strung his fourth or fifth replacement stick (Zeller can't remember which) before last month's Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, and Zeller began to extinguish his nightmare.
The moment came early in the the ACC semifinals against Duke, a game the Terps had to win to boost their chances of making the NCAAs. On his first shot of the night, Zeller beat Duke goalie Matt Breslin by ripping a 10-yard shot past him. The Maryland benched erupted. The Terps on the field mobbed Zeller, who sparked a 7-6 victory with his first two-goal effort of the season.
Through the 14-game regular season, Zeller has only 12 goals and 15 assists, with a 14.6 shooting percentage. But in his last six games, he has eight goals and three assists, including four goals against Yale. The confidence is back."I see that spark in [Zeller's] eyes that he had in '97 and '98, and I haven't seen much of it this year," Hochstadt said. "I've talked to him a lot all season. He's questioned himself plenty. He's ready now.""I love the way Brian fought through the adversity and handled it. No one goes through life without things going wrong. His career has been one of highs and lows," said Edell, who added he never considered knocking Zeller off the first midfield line."Brian is a funny kid who's always got a smile. When he wakes up in the morning, his glass is half-full. You don't walk past him without [cracking a joke]."
Zeller's teammates and coaches call him "the old man" for two reasons. He is a fifth-year senior whose career began with a broken foot and a medical redshirt year in 1996. Zeller chose to postpone a career in marketing by using his final year of eligibility, since Maryland missed the NCAAs in 1999 for the first time in nine seasons.
Then there is Zeller's advancing baldness, which serves as an inviting target."I'm always wearing a hat. Even when I take my helmet off for the national anthem, I'm wondering who's looking at the bald spot," Zeller said. "[Edell] is always finding a way to make fun of me, whether it's for being overweight my freshman year or going bald in my senior year."
Said Edell: "[Zeller] was one meal away from being a close defender [as a freshman]. Now, when he gets his game face on, he gets a little bit of stubble and he has more hair on his face than he has on his head."
Zeller countered with an observation of Edell's middle-age paunch: "Coach looks like he swallowed a basketball."
Zeller, the older of two sons-his father is a general contractor foreman, his mother manages a doctor's office-has been serious about his game since picking up a stick as a fourth-grader growing up in Parkville.
After earning All-Metro honors twice at Loyola, Zeller's career quickly assumed an up-and-down course at College Park.
He was a front-line player in 1998, but after a 1999 season (24 goals, six assists) he considered subpar, Zeller hopped on an airplane for the first time and flew to Australia, where he spent two months playing club lacrosse and working as a roofer in a foreign exchange program. He returned, had a strong fall season, then ran into the worst slump of his life.
Edell looks for Zeller to end his college days on a memorable note."Is there a player on our team who could go on a two- or three- or four-game tear?" Edell said. "That would be Brian Zeller. He's done it before."