COLLEGE PARK - The wind whips up the air on Ludwig Field, leaving a frigid practice green for the hottest team in college sports.
The girls - that's what women lacrosse players at the University of Maryland call themselves - drive up to the field in twos and threes. It's a striking scene: tall, thin, short, thick bodies, all toned, and every face a picture of simple beauty. The kind of beauty that comes with confidence, beauty that defines women comfortable with power. The other striking detail is that everyone wears a pony tail, everyone, that is, except midfielder Jen Adams, first among equals, whose short blond pigtails are as much a trademark as her tricky stick work.
They belong to a team that has a better record in national college championship games than the Yankees do in the World Series. It's a team that's undefeated and, beginning tomorrow, will defend its title for the seventh consecutive time.
But numbers are a mere distraction.
On the eve of a big match against Princeton, the girls stroll onto the field, fling their gear bags and car keys in the grass, and strip off their jackets. The talk is of shaving sunburned legs, new restaurants on U.S. 1 and who-said-what. Jokes, too. Chatter is nonstop as they lace up their lacrosse shoes. Two girls break away to pass the ball. Two more arrive, one running to hug the other. More gather. More hug. Courtney Hobbs lets out a warrior's scream. Someone breaks into song:
Hot cross buns, Hot cross buns, One a penny, Two a penny, Hot cross buns.
Nobody gives a command, but they all know when it's time. Slowly, they drift toward the edge of the field and drop down, cross-legged, in a circle.
Some close their eyes, others daydream. Tori Wellington, a co-captain, seems to pray. Minutes pass. This is meditation, a ritual before each practice. This is the time to center oneself, to picture your best play. To focus on yourself, your inner self.
This is the way of Maryland.
This is the way of a team that appears headed to its 10th Final Four. The team about to produce the best scorer of all time. The team with the best head coach. The best assistant coach. The team that has changed the way the game is played. Produced dozens of All-Americans. The team that keeps winning, year after year.
They are deep within themselves when the coach, Cindy Timchal, drives onto the field. They hoist their sticks as they rise, move to the center, and chant: We come together. We seek together. We win together. We lose together. We stay together. We serve each other. We love each other. We laugh together. Go Terps!
The line about laughing, the girls added themselves. The rest was composed with the help of a spiritual adviser last year. The girls rely on his philosophy. And on this night, they're grateful for one particular insight - slowing down is sometimes faster than speeding up.
The team has come off a stretch in which it faced four of the top 20 teams in seven days.
The past two days in Orlando for the Atlantic Coast Conference championships, the Terps got fried by the sun, saw their star player walloped in the head, the second-ranked player dehydrated, and their best defensive player take a stick on the nose. They played two of the top 20 teams again. They beat Virginia by one point and Duke by two. The way home was equally brutal: heat stroke, delayed flights, a traffic jam on I-95.
Before the Princeton game, they feel drained. They feel vulnerable against the fifth-ranked Tigers.
The coaches have done the usual work before a big game. They've researched recent plays, watched the videos. They know what team members should work on. But Maryland doesn't put pressure on itself, not tonight.
Instead, practice is light. And, the players have been in and out of Timchal's office all day.
"Sometimes we talk instead of do," the coach says.
This is the way of Maryland.
It's a mind game.
Nobody can copy it, though Duke has tried, right down to hiring the same spiritual adviser. Other teams may drill harder, three hours to Maryland's two. But can they copy the easy way Maryland girls make each other laugh? The way they vie to get one another humming the silliest song: If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands ...
This is a team that has a life of its own, a history off the field. A history handed down by women who have expectations, not about winning and losing, but about how to behave toward each other.
Listen to them in shooting drills: "Good grab."
"Oh my god, what am I doing?"
"We'll sink them."
"Yeah, I like that."
"You are the woman."
You'll never hear angry words between Maryland girls when a teammate makes a mistake on the field.
Senior Meg Carrington, sidelined because of a knee injury, recalls being in awe of the team at her first practice. She was shocked to find that they got along so well.
"One of the things about Maryland lacrosse is the sense of unity we got once we stepped on the field," she explains.
Everybody knows Carolina is blond, or Duke is tall. But Maryland girls are blond and dark, Southern belles and street-smart New Yorkers. Public school and private school. Elite and working class. Book hounds and jocks.
"What we have in common," Carrington says, "is a love for the game and [the desire] to have fun. When you're having fun, you play well, and vice versa." This they have learned from Jerry Lynch, a West Coast sports psychologist whose book "Thinking Body, Dancing Mind" translated parts of the ancient book of Chinese wisdom, Tao Te Ching, or, the Book of the Way and Power, into sport. The way, or Tao, is to follow the path of least resistance.
Maryland is Lynch's greatest athletic success story.
And Cindy Timchal's. She hired him in 1995 after reading the book, in which he argues against coaches who are obsessed with winning and intolerant of failure.
She shared his view that worrying about winning is a distraction that can make one anxious. But focusing on small details such as each move on the playing field as it is happening makes the game fun.
Maryland focuses on itself, not on the other team.
"Lynch always says, you can't control the outcome of a game, but you can control how you are," Carrington says. "It's how you need to be, not what you're going to do. ... It's what you want to be -in the moment."
This explains how Maryland can be lighthearted and have a killer instinct.
This explains why Maryland women work on their banter - amusing each other with words, gesture and song - as much as they do stick work.
They call their style "relaxed intensity."
It's so relaxed that when Wellington sees a friend running around the track beyond the lacrosse field she interrupts her stickwork to cheer her on: "Yeah, Kelly, go beat them."
So relaxed that two midfielders in shooting drills drop their sticks to the ground as if to drive in a golf ball.
So relaxed that when assistant coach Gary Gait tells the girls they need to devise a signal to receive the ball - and not a wink - Adams winks. It's a big wink, exaggerated and sassy. Suddenly the whole team is winking.
This is the way of Maryland.
Their goal is not to win.
It is for each girl to jump over the bar she has set for herself. Somewhere in their lacrosse bags are 3-by-5 index cards on which each has described herself in action.
"I get every ball," one player writes. Not, I will try to get every ground ball. Or even, I will get every ground ball.
All-American Quinn Carney's goal in this, her senior year, is to walk off the field after each game without regret. No "what-ifs."
To win and have regrets is worse than if you had lost.
The Maryland way means that sports reporters who ask Adams about her incredible career-scoring mark discover that she doesn't know what her point-total is. (She has exceeded 400, only the second player nationally to do so.)
It means whether the score is 8-4, 4-4 or 2-4 on the field, the score in their heads is always 0-0. When the score is 0-0, the team can focus on playing its best game all the time.
They don't care about winning? Sure they do, but not like Duke or Georgetown, who have vowed to beat Maryland. The Terps don't say, "Let's get Princeton, who killed us in 1994, or Loyola, who broke our 50-game winning streak in 1997."
This they know: Any good team can win. Any good team can lose.
For two days after losing the 1997 game, the Terps walked around as if someone had died. The next day they asked themselves what they always do, no matter the score: How do we do our best today?
Playing in the moment gives them the presence of mind to turn a game around in the last half or in the last minute or when key players are benched for disciplinary reasons, as happened in the recent Dartmouth game.
Sometimes all it takes is a reminder from the coach: Have fun.
"You don't look like you're having fun out there," she says in a time-out. "Relax."
This is the way of Maryland.
That doesn't mean they don't work hard. On the contrary, they are driven.
Mistakes are OK on the Maryland field. You learn from them. Without them, nobody would take a risk. Compassion is a big part of Maryland lacrosse. A player must forgive herself when she makes a mistake; her teammates must do the same.
No one player is more important than another, a trait that impressed shy freshman Kelly Coppedge, who knew that some teams relegated freshmen to picking up balls. At her first Maryland practice, the top players she admired introduced themselves. Soon she was playing alongside them. And when she missed a goal, they gave her some tips. She went on to score two goals against Duke.
But a winning team has to keep raising its own bar. Gait has shown players how to raise the level of play with stick work. They have the freedom to try something new because of an atmosphere that tolerates mistakes.
If a move fails, figure out why it failed and how to make it work.
From this approach comes breakthroughs in stick work.
But the Maryland way wouldn't mean much without great athletes.
Timchal and Gait recruit athletes, not positions like some colleges do. Wellington, an All-American with 12 varsity letters in high school lacrosse, soccer and basketball, won a spot on the Terps team even though her high school lacrosse team never won a game.
The team's continued streak is all the more compelling since competitors have poached on Maryland's natural recruitment area. Five of the Princeton players, including three starters, are from Baltimore schools. UNC and Duke each have nine Maryland women.
Maryland has traveled across the world, to Australia, for three of its starters, including Adams.
Timchal thinks it's funny that other teams try to copy Maryland.
"Every year we have a different team," she says. "They are always trying to catch up, but we're someplace else."
The day of the Princeton game, the Maryland girls suffer another setback, an injury that keeps a key player from the game. They will hear her cry, feel her loss.
They will hear their coach tell them it is OK to lose, as long as they play their best.
On the field an hour before the game, they are singing aloud and tapping each other with their sticks. Wellington is laughing as she tucks her earrings into a gym bag, Carney and Adams are hugging before they run out to pass the ball, and a half dozen of them are stretch-dancing.
Maryland girls will be the ones dropping the ball, goofing around, as a somber Princeton works ferociously, steadily. Only in the last 20 minutes before game time will Maryland look serious.
They will not play a great game. Princeton will have possession of the ball most of the time. Coppedge, a freshman starting in her first game, will take some long shots and miss. In the face of Princeton's stubbornness, Maryland will regroup. Reset, the co- captain will say inside their circle.
Stay in the moment.
Knowing how hard a teammate has worked for the ground ball, Maryland will hold onto it down the field. The Terps will take shots quickly. Step it up for each other. Dig deep. In the last five minutes they will tell themselves they are better than this.
Let's just go out there and play.
And they will win. The 36th consecutive win will go down as another test. Another game that brings them closer.
This is the way of Maryland.