COLLEGE PARK -- They play to empty seats, rattle to road games by bus and walk the campus with none of the strut befitting national champions.

Meet Maryland's top-ranked field hockey team: undefeated, undeterred and largely unheralded in its own backyard.

Not that it matters, players said.

"We play the game because we love it," said Nicole Muracco, the Terps' all-time career goals leader. "If people don't want to come watch, they're the ones who are missing out."

Maryland (18-0), the No. 1-ranked team in the country all season, begins postseason play Friday at 4 p.m., when it faces the winner of Thursday's Wake Forest-Boston College game in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in Charlottesville, Va.

"We've had a great time, and we've grown a lot," said coach Missy Meharg, whose team is nearly half freshmen. "Now we're back to square one."

It's hard not to bet on the Terps, a bright and intuitive bunch seeking their fourth national championship in five years and sixth overall. Maryland ended the regular season with consecutive victories over seven ranked teams, only one of which (Princeton) came close, losing 3-2 in overtime.

In the 35-year history of the program, no team had run the table before this one.

Not that it matters, players said.

"Who'd remember a team that went 18-0 and then lost in the tournament?" said Emma Thomas, who, on Wednesday, was named ACC Defensive Player of the Year. "This is the business part of the season."

Thomas, from England, has 19 goals and says Maryland's success stems in part from the bonds between players, on and off the field.

"It's like having 22 sisters," Thomas said. "They know what you need before you know it yourself. If I've had a bad day, I'll come to practice and there'll be a candy bar in my locker with a note saying, 'You can do it.' "

How well do players know one another? "Hmmm," said Ali Grater, the Terps' star goalie. "Ameliet Rischen puts ketchup on everything she eats, Amanda Himmelheber [Severna Park] keeps pet rats in her room, and Tara Zollinger wants to be a gypsy when she graduates."

Said Grater: "Chemistry is our biggest strength. Some [teammates] are closer than others, but when you get down to it, these girls are my best friends."

The Terps have found ways to cope with going undefeated, Muracco said.

"We've had 'theme' dinners, where everyone dressed as celebrities, from Ozzy Osbourne to Lil Wayne to Richard Simmons," she said. "It gets your mind off of hockey."

Oh, the pranks they've played. Coaches come to practice to find their sticks gone (tucked beneath the couch in the team room). Once, during a workout, a moped belonging to Katie O'Donnell, the team's all-time career points leader, wandered a few yards over and hid behind a tree.

"We like to think we're mature, but we're not," Muracco said.

Even practice - an onerous affair at Maryland - has had its comic relief.

"Sometimes, while we're dribbling, we'll play a game where we gang up on someone and try to hit her feet," O'Donnell said. "She'll be jumping all around while Coach just rolls her eyes and says, 'Don't let anyone get hurt.' "

Less amusing was an incident during a Saturday home game in September. Midway through a showdown with Wake Forest - a rematch of last year's national championship - an acrid cloud of smoke descended from a nearby parking lot, where Maryland football fans were having a tailgate party.

"For five minutes, it was really hard to breathe," said O'Donnell, the ACC Offensive Player of the Year. "I didn't know a grill could make that much smoke and smell that bad."

The Terps soldiered on. The team has played before crowds as small as 100 (mostly parents), endured seven-hour bus rides and started games as early as 11 a.m. to accommodate other sports.

Not that it matters, players said.

"If I wanted to be a popular athlete, I wouldn't have picked this sport," O'Donnell said.

Last Friday, in the home finale, she had two goals and an assist in a 6-2 rout of No. 12 Stanford. Among the smattering of students on hand was Ersin Levent, a sophomore from Rockville.

What brought him to the game?

"I just wanted to see what an undefeated Maryland team looked like," said Levent, who plays basketball for the Terps.


No. 1 Maryland vs. Wake Forest-Boston College winner

Friday, 4 p.m., Charlottesville, Va.

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