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Illness can't keep Geppi-Aikens from today's 1-vs.-2 matchup

THERE'S A BIG game going to take place today. Loyola vs. Maryland. Women's lacrosse.

It's the regular-season finale between the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country. Ludwig Field in College Park. 1 p.m.

Be there?

Would not miss it.

Could not miss it.

And if Maryland is truly the lacrosse-crazy place that it seems to be, not only will the bleachers be packed, but the standing-room-only crowd around the Ludwig Field fence ought to be deep, too - a sea of red and green - as Terps and Greyhounds fans gather for this annual rite of spring. Only this one comes with a sweet, sad, inspiring twist.

Anyone reading these sports pages, or who saw last week's issue of Sports Illustrated in which Loyola coach Diane Geppi-Aikens penned a riveting essay about living and coaching while battling inoperable brain cancer, knows that a special lacrosse season has taken place in this state.

On a snowy day in January, soon after doctors told Geppi-Aikens that there was little left for them to do, the coach sat in her Overlea home and said she had two goals.

One was to see her oldest son graduate from high school this May. The other? She's a coach. You know what she asked: to see her Greyhounds play for a national championship.

Guess what? Loyola is 14-1 this season - undefeated until Virginia escaped with a 10-9 win Tuesday. Loyola, unaffiliated and therefore always dependent on an at-large bid for the NCAA tournament, has secured a berth when the postseason starts Thursday.

"Loyola's been No. 1 in the country for eight weeks. I've been able to enjoy my kids and beat the odds," Geppi-Aikens said.

In fact, the coach is so close to achieving her goals, it almost feels like a miracle.

"I want to win every day, in sports and in life. I've already beaten the odds. I've been here longer than I should have been," Geppi-Aikens said after practice yesterday.

Geppi-Aikens was sitting in the passenger seat of her father John Geppi's big Lincoln - the car that has given him a starring and tender role in Driving Miss Diane. She gets tired. Steroids to control the tumor swell her face. Her left arm is of little use, but every day, Geppi-Aikens is out there.

"I have a team to coach," she said.

"As a leader, I'm not trying to put anything on them. I've always been an emotional coach. But we try to have a combination and balance between talent and emotions, the kids and me," she said.

It was no surprise to learn that a Hollywood producer called Geppi-Aikens this week to say her story should be made into a movie.

As if we didn't already know that. Her will to remain a vital, vibrant member of her family, school, sport, community and city is incredible - at once humbling and uplifting.

It's no wonder that opponents this season have honored Geppi-Aikens by wearing green tape on their sticks or green laces in their cleats. In a community as tight as women's lacrosse, the outpouring of love and support has found its way onto the field.

Now, however, things gets much more intense - and interesting. With Maryland (16-2) and Loyola set to square off in their annual regular-season finale, this is where the emotion of Loyola's season intersects with hard-core competitive reality.

Does anyone think that Cindy Timchal's Terps - owners of 10 national championships and the big sister in this intrastate Division I lacrosse rivalry - are going to allow anything to get in the way of their goals?

Both Maryland and Loyola have secured spots in the NCAAs. The outcome of this game is not likely to change much except perhaps the location of first-round games. However, there's always something at stake when Terps and Greyhounds collide.

"It's a total rivalry for many years. It's the last game of the season, and even though we're usually playing to get into the tournament, this one's still big. This one's for pride," Geppi-Aikens said.

Talk about tunnel vision; the Terps are barely willing to acknowledge that Loyola presents a special challenge this season, considering Geppi-Aikens' enduring battle against cancer and the Greyhounds' stirring run at No. 1 - which is where the Terps usually sit.

"Obviously, it's horrible what's happening with Diane, but we still want to win," Timchal said.

With both Loyola and Maryland coming off losses, the showdown seems a little more meaty. Wednesday night, No. 6 Princeton demolished the Terps at Ludwig Field. The Tigers scored nearly at will, prompting some within the program to wonder whether Maryland might have been looking too far ahead to Loyola and all the extra fuss this matchup will bring.

As of Thursday, the Terps were unwilling to talk about what they, like other teams, would do to honor Geppi-Aikens.

"Honestly, I know some teams say they take it game by game, but we do," said Terps defenseman Julie Shank, professing that the Terps had not discussed what they would, if anything, do.

This suits Geppi-Aikens just fine. More than fine, actually.

"I don't expect it. I don't want it. I don't want any pity," she said.

"I have tremendous respect for Cindy. No one's won more national championships than she has. She has a talented team every year, and she gets them ready to play. I know she's not thinking about cancer at all. She thinks about winning, and that's why I respect her."

Indeed, there is nothing coming out of College Park that says the Terps will do anything except come out to try to beat Loyola this afternoon.

And, if you think about it, for a coach as competitive, as dedicated, as alive as Diane Geppi-Aikens, would there be any greater way to honor her than trying to win?

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