Reinventing a juggernaut


For most college teams, beating eight nationally ranked opponents and reaching the NCAA quarterfinals would add up to a great season, but the Maryland women's lacrosse team set the bar so high that anything short of another national championship seemed disappointing.

Losing, 14-4, to upstart Cornell in last May's quarterfinals brought a bitter end to the Terrapins' string of seven straight national titles. For the first time since 1989, the Terps failed to reach the final four.

"It didn't seem real," said Sonia Judd, now a Terps senior. "It was tough for the seniors to go out that way. I know I was devastated, but I still had one more year."

A year for her and the other 16 returning Terrapins to try to get Maryland back on track, beginning with today's 2 p.m. season opener. The game originally scheduled at George Mason has been switched to Maryland's Artificial Turf Facility because of the snow.

Though the reasons behind Maryland's descent fall both inside and outside the program, the Terps plan to take a better hold of the factors they can control.

Some of last season's trouble can be blamed on the fallout from graduating eight seniors, including five All-Americans, from the 2001 team. That left the 2002 Terps young, inexperienced and lacking leadership - a breeding ground for inconsistency and lack of confidence.

"When you have a senior-heavy team the year before, a lot of teams go through that," said Terps coach Cindy Timchal. "We lost a lot of players at a time when other teams out there like North Carolina and Cornell were peaking and had like eight starting seniors."

Close games that had gone Maryland's way were being seized by more experienced and confident opponents, several of whom had never beaten Maryland before. The Terps lost five one-goal games and another by two goals.

The Terps return just one All-American, leading scorer Kelly Coppedge, but after strong fall ball and preseason campaigns, the team has grown and leadership is finally emerging

"The previous year, we had so many seniors, there was no need for anyone in the junior class or lower to take a leadership role," said Judd. "All of a sudden, these people left and there was a big hole there. It was hard for the four seniors to step up and fill that hole. Last year, we as juniors had to help with the leadership role, so we have had that experience."

Of course, there are some things the Terps cannot control, including the loss of assistant coach Gary Gait, who brought flair to the Terps' sticks and creativity to their offense for nine years.

However, the Terps' offensive strategy likely won't change much, because his most famous protege, former three-time national Player of the Year Jen Adams, takes over as assistant coach.

"Losing Gary is a big loss," said Terps sophomore Greta Sommers, "but Jen has definitely filled his shoes. Her teaching style is similar to his. She's a very creative person."

Adams, a Terps student assistant coach last season, said she and Cathy Nelson, a former Terps All-America attacker in her fifth season as assistant coach, will carry on Gait's legacy.

"Gary was obviously a huge part of our winning streak, but things change," Adams said of Gait, who left Maryland after being passed over for the men's head coaching job. "He's left behind his theories, his style and his ideas about coaching. That's ingrained in myself and Cathy and we're going to keep passing them along."

Even after losing Gait and finishing last season 11-10 - their worst record since 1976 - the Terps cannot be counted out. Their 30-year tradition, which includes 10 national titles, is too strong.

Just look at their ranking in the preseason Intercollegiate Women's Lacrosse Coaches Association Top 20 - No. 6.

Even amid their struggles last season, the Terps sprinkled in memorable moments such as beating top-seeded Virginia in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament opener and upsetting Loyola in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

"When their kids look back on that tradition and they buy into it and take it to heart, that's when they're dangerous," said Johns Hopkins coach Janine Tucker. "The kids who weren't around during that heyday [of seven straight NCAA titles] will always be able to point to that as something that no one else has ever done."

But can the Terps ever put together another string of seven national championships? Probably not.

It's unlikely anyone else could, either. After the first few years of the Terps' seven-year reign, programs such as NCAA champ Princeton, runner-up Georgetown and ACC champ North Carolina began closing the gap. The 2001 Terps won six one-goal games, including a double-overtime national final against Georgetown.

"Maryland obviously set a really high standard," said North Carolina coach Jenny Slingluff-Levy. "Gary Gait brought in some things, and, after awhile, people caught on to the stick skills and the strategy. I still think Maryland's program is as competitive as ever. There's just a lot more parity in the league."

Though the Terps certainly want another NCAA crown, they could leave the field more satisfied after a season-ending loss if they played to their potential, something they fell well short of at Cornell.

"Everyone took a piece of that loss away with them as a reminder that we can't afford to be complacent," said Judd. "It can be something positive to look back on as a lesson that we don't want to be there again."

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