Tears in reddened eyes, her Maryland women’s lacrosse jersey shed for a red Under Armour T-shirt, Taylor Cummings walked into the last postgame news conference of her college career and turned her head.
Ahead was the podium where the senior midfielder from McDonogh would be asked to explain how the top-seeded Terps, unbeaten since last May, had lost Sunday to No. 3 seed North Carolina, a 13-7 stunner in the NCAA Division I final spoiling the coronation of a historic season. To the left was loud music. Through the concrete walls poured the thundering vocals of Florence and the Machine.
Cummings looked over briefly, as if expecting to see the Tar Heels locker room and the jubilation that was expected to be hers. “The dog days are over,” went the chorus. “The dog days are done.”
Maryland coach Cathy Reese, sitting next to Cummings, congratulated North Carolina (20-2) on its second national title. Then her star player was asked to articulate the emotion she felt as she walked off the Talen Energy Stadium field.
Not until the last of the Terps’ 23 games this season did they lose, and it had cost them their third straight championship and first undefeated season since 2001. As Cummings began to speak, the clapping intensified and the sing-along swelled.
“I am sad that that’s the way that my class went out,” she said, her voice beginning to quaver. “That was my last game, but I couldn’t be …” She slowed to compose herself. This was a question she had not expected to answer, and the end still felt sudden. Choked with emotion, her next few words were lost amid the din of a song celebrating the unlikelihood of sudden joy.
“At the end of the day, with all of this, you can’t really let 60 minutes define you,” said Reese, alone after Cummings had picked up her backpack and left following a difficult four minutes of reckoning with the fourth defeat of her career. “That’s the one thing that I think it’s really hard for my seniors … to take in, because they’ve competed their hearts out for four years in a Maryland uniform.”
The Terps will return to College Park 88-4 over the past four years, but in Sunday’s game, before an announced 7,129, they found both history repeating itself and history denied.
Three years ago, not even 20 miles from here, an undefeated Maryland team went to Villanova on the verge of an undefeated season. Tar Heels goalie Megan Ward (St. Mary’s), then a freshman, stopped a point-blank shot from Brooke Griffin (South River) early in the third overtime. Back downfield went Sammy Jo Tracy, scoring seconds later to give the Tar Heels their first national title in the longest championship game in tournament history.
On Friday, Ward was pulled early in Friday’s semifinal win against Penn State. Two days later, against the nation’s highest-scoring attack, she made a career-high 14 saves, denying the Terps their first undefeated season since 2001 and 13th NCAA title, and the sport its first three-peat since Northwestern won five straight from 2005-09.
“I was a little bit surprised [to start], but it was great, especially after my performance against Penn State,” Ward said. “The defense played great in front of me, and that definitely helped me today.”
The offense was just as good; North Carolina was the first team to reach double-digit goals against Maryland this season. The Tar Heels led 6-1 at one point in the first half, and attacker Aly Messinger (two goals, four assists) seemed to do as she pleased, finding attackers Molly Hendrick (three goals) and Sammy Jo Tracy (two goals) for quick-stick goals with surprising ease.
The Terps, meanwhile, in no way resembled the powerhouse that had entered the game scoring 2.28 goals for every one conceded. (The ratio of points for this season’s historic Connecticut women’s basketball team, by comparison: 1.82 to one.)
The team that scored five times in the opening 10 minutes of a 19-9 semifinal win over fourth-seeded Syracuse had one shot on goal in the same period against Ward.
Maryland, Reese acknowledged, was a step slow, even Cummings, widely expected to win her third straight Tewaaraton Award as the nation’s top player.
Midway through the first half, from behind the net, midfielder Molly Hendrick looped around the goal circle. Cummings, trailing just behind, went for the takeaway check, only for Hendrick to bring the stick out of harm’s way. She beat goalie Megan Taylor (Glenelg) for the Tar Heels’ fourth goal and a three-score lead.
Cummings won the next draw control and missed the next shot. Maryland forced a turnover on the next ride, and attacker Caroline Wannen was wide open, a potential breakaway just a pass away. Cummings’ feed was routine; the result was unexpected. The ball sailed out of reach, and Cummings bent over at the waist in frustration.
“They made their chances count,” she said, “and we didn’t.”
Megan Whittle (team-high three goals) and fellow attacker Caroline Steele’s no-look, behind-the-back shot got the Terps to within 6-4 before halftime, and when Cummings found the net to make it 7-6 early in the second half, she dropped her stick, raised her hands in celebration and yelled. The Terps hadn’t been so close since the game’s opening minutes.
Ten minutes later, Hendrick would mark the beginning of the end. A Terps defender standing between her and the 5 yards to goal, another one bearing down fast, she spun back to her right. Hendrick would not get her hands free for an overhand shot, as her teammates had so often Sunday. Instead, she twisted her body and whipped a backhander from near her knees. The shot rippled the net.
From a distance, it looked as if Hendrick were shoveling dirt on a grave.