COLLEGE PARK - Call Maryland's Michael Dello-Russo highly skilled, versatile, a team player and so on when it comes to his work on the soccer field for the Terrapins. But a central defender?
That one, says the Wilde Lake graduate, took a little getting used to this season.
"The only positions I played before coming to college were center midfield and forward. So to be a center back now, if you would have told me in high school that I'd play there in college, I probably would have laughed and said 'no way,'" said Dello-Russo, who has played every field position at Maryland.
The fourth-year junior has gone from "no way" to finding a comfortable home in the back, and his smooth adjustment and steady play have helped spark Maryland's continued success this season.
The Terrapins (17-5-2) will make their third straight NCAA College Cup appearance tonight when they meet defending national champion Indiana (17-4-1) in the semifinals in Carson, Calif.
After missing last season with a knee injury, Dello-Russo, a team captain, sees another opportunity to break through after the Terps failed to reach the championship game the past two seasons.
"We're going to have to keep working hard and get a little luck," said Dello-Russo, who redshirted last season to retain a year of eligibility. "I think some of it is 'I'd rather be lucky than good' and we've been a little unlucky the last couple years. But we'll work really hard, play well as a team and be all right."
Questions coming into the season were mostly directed toward defense, with graduation taking its toll there in front of standout goalkeeper Noah Palmer. But with Dello-Russo complementing Kenney Bertz in the middle, and Chris Lancos and David Glaudemans playing wide, the Terrapins' defense has posted 12 shutouts - eight in the team's past 11 games.
Maryland coach Sasho Cirovski was confident Dello-Russo would become a quick study in his new role at center back, first playing him there during spring scrimmages before inserting him there on a permanent basis a few games into the regular season.
"Michael's the kind of guy that understands his role, accepts it, embraces it and then fulfills it," Cirovski said. "He's got a good feel for the game and to have a guy who can get out of trouble when he needs to and be able to start our attack, it's very important for us."
Watching Dello-Russo defend against goals instead of score them has been a little different for midfielder Ian Rodway, a fellow Wilde Lake alumnus. The two first started playing together on the Columbia Strikers under-9 team.
"We all know Mike is a really good player and he can step up and play anywhere, so no one had any doubts," Rodway said. "The past few games, he's been almost flawless. He makes all the right choices and he's quick enough to pick up any mistakes we may make. We're all real confident in what he can do."
Playing central defense, Dello-Russo is constantly challenged by the opposing teams' top offensive threats, leaving little margin for error. That's been just fine with him.
"I would have thought I'd be nervous playing back there because you have so much responsibility in the middle and you have to concentrate on every single touch, but it's been so fun," he said. "I love it. I think I've definitely found a niche here."
What: NCAA Division I men's soccer final four
Where: Home Depot Center, Carson, Calif.
Semifinals: Today - No. 3 seed Maryland (17-5-2) vs. No. 2 Indiana (17-4-1), 8 p.m; No. 9 UC Santa Barbara (20-2-1) vs. unseeded Duke (18-5), 10:30 p.m.
Final: Sunday, 4 p.m.
TV: Semifinals on ESPN2 tape delay tomorrow at noon; final live on ESPN2.