For Johns Hopkins midfielder Haley Schweizer, the wait last year to find out that the Blue Jays had made it into the NCAA women's lacrosse tournament field seemed almost interminable.
As an independent, Johns Hopkins went 15 days without a game before the tournament field was announced. All Schweizer and her teammates could do was watch how other teams finished their conference tournaments and hope that as a 10-7 bubble team they would earn a berth in the NCAA field.
This year in early May, the Blue Jays will have something to do. They'll be playing for the first time in the Big Ten Conference tournament.
"There's just something about conference play that's a lot more exciting," Schweizer said, "and there's that period at the end of the season when we would have two or three weeks of just practice. While everyone else was in conference tournaments, we were just holding on to see what would happen. It will be great to play a competitive game then and to have these competitive games all season."
As the No. 16 Blue Jays prepare to make their debut as an affiliate member in the Big Ten at No. 1 Maryland on Sunday at noon, they're not looking ahead to the conference tournament. There's too much at stake between now and then.
They are savoring the chance to be back in a conference after two years as an independent, not just for the season-ending tournament but to test themselves against top-notch old rivals and new ones.
They will renew those rivalries with No. 8 Penn State and No. 18 Northwestern, whom they battled in the now-defunct American Lacrosse Conference. They also believe that Johns Hopkins and Maryland can develop into an edgy rivalry now that it's a conference game and because many of the players on each team grew up playing with and against each other in clubs and high schools around the Baltimore area.
"It's nice to have another Big Ten team that's close," Maryland coach Cathy Reese said. "With the rivalry that's on the men's side, the Maryland-Hopkins game has historically been a big rivalry for both of them. It's nice to try to have that excitement on the women's side."
After playing the Terps three times in her career, Blue Jays goalie Caroline Federico (Maryvale) said she believes their meetings could someday match the men's rivalry.
"I think it already has started to be somewhat of a rivalry with us playing them the past couple years," Federico said. "But especially with the men's teams always going head-to-head against each other, I think it will develop into something more. It's something to look forward to. Whenever we play an in-state team, I always feel there's a little more to it."
Johns Hopkins is one of four teams in the Big Ten ranked in the Inside Lacrosse poll along with Maryland, Penn State and Northwestern. Ohio State and Rutgers are also receiving votes. Only Michigan is out of the top 27.
In the Big Ten, the Blue Jays meet familiar conference foes in Penn State, Northwestern, Ohio State and Michigan, who were also in the American Lacrosse Conference, which disbanded when they, Maryland and Rutgers united in the Big Ten two years ago.
The Blue Jays were competitive in the ALC and should certainly be competitive in the Big Ten, said Halley Quillinan, women's editor for Inside Lacrosse.
"What Hopkins has been able to do the last two years without a conference, getting into the NCAA tournament, that was pretty remarkable," Quillinan said. "They were able to get some quality wins to really bolster their resume to get in as an at-large bid, but now they don't need one. I think there's definitely less pressure. I don't know if that's a good or bad thing, but there's always an opportunity to win the Big Ten tournament to get the automatic qualifying bid into the NCAA. I think the girls on the roster are playing for something more this year."
Of course, their initiation into the Big Ten could have come against a team other than the best in the country, but that doesn't bother the Blue Jays.
"I think it's definitely a good thing," said Federico, who allows just 7.58 goals per game while her Terps counterpart Megan Taylor (Glenelg) gives up just 8.2.
"The reason we joined the Big Ten is to play the best of the best and to be in the best conference and challenge ourselves. We believe we're a program that's up there with those teams, so it's only fitting that we start off playing the No. 1 team in the country."
Although the Blue Jays have just seven seniors on the roster, they want to be part of starting something their teammates can carry on.
"It's been a long time coming," said Hopkins coach Janine Tucker, whose program announced the move to the Big Ten in June 2015. "And this senior class understands that they are the ones establishing the reputation and the entrance into the Big Ten. They're taking that seriously and they are really interested in representing Hopkins in the Big Ten. It's something we're proud of. ... I think the team feels like this is such a positive, challenging and exciting opportunity for our program and it certainly starts on Sunday against Maryland."