Alexis Hogarth has a message for the Big Ten coaches who predicted that the Maryland women’s soccer team would finish 13th in the 14-member conference in the league’s preseason poll.
“In some ways, that is the best motivating factor — when people don’t believe in you,” said the junior defender who grew up in Jarrettsville and graduated from St. Paul’s. “It’s one of those things that lights a fire under you a little bit more than being on top. So I think that was a big deal.”
Rejecting that preseason forecast, the Terps finished with a 9-7-3 overall record and a 5-5-1 mark in the Big Ten. They clinched a spot in the conference tournament in the penultimate game of the regular season and are projected to be the No. 6 seed with a potential first-round game against either No. 16 Rutgers (14-2-2, 8-2-1) or No. 20 Michigan (13-4-1, 8-2-1) when the tournament opens Sunday.
Maryland upset the then-No. 20 Scarlet Knights, 2-1, on Sept. 28, but fell, 4-1, to the Wolverines on Sunday.
The Terps will play in their first postseason tournament since the 2013 squad qualified for the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. That might explain why coach Ray Leone was unfazed when he saw his players crying after they had edged Michigan State, 1-0, on Oct. 24 to extend their season.
“I had hoped it would feel like that for them because it was such a major accomplishment,” said Leone, who is 23-40-12 overall and 9-30-5 in the Big Ten in four seasons. “We all knew, ‘If you win this game, you will have done it.’ That was a lot of weight on our shoulders.”
Leone said he was not surprised by the preseason poll because the team had graduated only four players — including a trio of starters in forward Jarena Harmon, defender Jenna Surdick and goalkeeper Rachel Egyed — from a squad that finished 12th in 2018 with records of 4-10-5 overall and 2-7-2 in the league. But in his opinion, what the poll’s voters failed to take into account was the return of forwards Alyssa Poarch and Mikayla Dayes from serious knee injuries.
Poarch, a redshirt sophomore, leads the Terps in goals (eight) and points (19), while Dayes ranks second in goals (five) and points (11). Sophomore midfielder Loren Sefcik has added 10 points on three goals and four assists, and senior defender/midfielder Jlon Flippens leads the team with six assists.
The offense has averaged 1.3 goals and totaled 21 assists — both of which are program highs since 2013. Poarch, who sat out the 2017 season after fully tearing the ACL and partially tearing the meniscus in her left knee in the spring of her senior year of high school, credited the offensive resurgence to a rediscovered chemistry among the players.
“I feel like this year, our team is a lot closer,” she said. “So just being able to rely on anyone, I can turn to anyone and be comfortable talking to them because we know that every person’s style of play is different. Just learning how each person works is how we’ve been successful this year.”
Opponents have averaged 1.6 goals, which is the most allowed since 2016. But the defense has posted six clean sheets, which ties the total recorded by the 2014 squad.
Leone said the defense has gelled with the same four starting defenders in juniors Alexis Hogarth, Malikae Dayes and Anissa Mose and sophomore Adalee Broadbent with seniors Julia New and Jlon Flippens also in the rotation. Senior goalkeeper Erin Seppi, who ranks third in the Big Ten in saves per game (4.0) and fourth in total saves (68), said that familiarity has bolstered the defense.
“I know all of their tendencies, and they know all of mine,” she said. “So it makes it a lot easier to play with them. My two center backs [in Dayes and Broadbent] are some of the best center backs I’ve ever played behind. Having that confidence in front of me is super beneficial. Sometimes I take advantage of it because I know they’re going to make a play that is just phenomenal, and I’m going to get away with a little bit of an easy game.”
Maryland’s season turned after a pair of losses at Nebraska and Iowa in a three-day span. The team played Indiana to a scoreless tie on Oct. 17 and then scored two goals in the second half to complete a rally against Purdue, 2-1, on Oct. 20 and then defeat Michigan State four days later.
Hogarth said the display of emotion in the aftermath of the win against the Spartans was the culmination of a lack of success in previous seasons.
“It was hard because the first few years, it was not close,” she said. “We knew that we had the ability to, but that we just didn’t get those results. So yes, it was emotional now, but it was something we definitely expected to happen.”
Leone said the players should be familiar with the Big Ten tournament’s single-elimination atmosphere after experiencing a similar feeling after the setbacks to Nebraska and Iowa.
“We’ve already played in these one-and-done games,” he said. “But this truly is a one-and-done thing. So it’s a heightened focus, and there’s got to be more attention to detail on little things like set pieces and defending and special players. There’s no, ‘Oh, I forgot to do this.’ You’ve got to do it all to be successful in games like this.”
Because this is the team’s first foray in the postseason, nerves figure to be a significant factor. Already considered an underdog, Seppi said the players relish that label.
“I think it takes a little bit of the pressure off,” she said of not being considered one of the favorites to capture the tournament championship. “And it motivates you, it drives you. It gives you the opportunity to come up big and push past an obstacle. I think heading forward into a challenge is something we like to do, and we’ve been doing it.”
Qualifying for the Big Ten tournament is meaningful, but Poarch said the players won’t be enamored with simply getting there.