For years, Danielle Van Rootselaar and her teammates on the Brown field hockey team took somewhat drastic measures to watch the NCAA Tournament.
“We skipped class just to make sure we could watch the games live,” she recalled. “We would have multiple games on at the same time so that we could watch all of them. And we would watch the skills the girls had and all the talent that was there.”
This weekend, the graduate student midfielder will get to participate in her first Final Four. Van Rootselaar and No. 3 seed Maryland (19-3) advanced to the program’s 21st national semifinal and will meet No. 2 seed and reigning NCAA champion Northwestern (19-4) on Friday at 3 p.m. at UConn’s George J. Sherman Family Sports Complex in Storrs, Connecticut. The first semifinal will pit No. 1 North Carolina (19-0) against unseeded Penn State (17-3) at noon.
Reaching this stage of the postseason feels almost surreal to Van Rootselaar.
“It was always my dream to play at the highest level here,” she said. “That wasn’t always feasible at Brown. I guess I wasn’t really jealous because I knew we weren’t going to make the NCAAs anyway. But once I got here, I knew I could give myself the opportunity to be in that position, and I’m really grateful that I have that now.”
As novel as the feeling might be for Van Rootselaar, the same can’t be said for the Terps, who have advanced to the Final Four in four of the last five seasons of competition and have captured eight national titles — the second-most in NCAA history only behind North Carolina’s and Old Dominion’s nine. But the program last won the crown in 2011, and coach Missy Meharg acknowledged that Maryland has “been knocking on the door.”
“I think for us, it’s our time,” said Meharg, who is the program’s all-time winningest coach at 624-159-9. “I’d love for this team and this program to be able to have that feat. At the same time, disappointment comes with losing. When you’re winners and you put yourself on a stage like this, there’s no way we wouldn’t be disappointed. That goes without saying. But we’re going to do everything to put ourselves in a position to bring the trophy home.”
Meharg listed a few reasons she likes her current group of players. On the field, they rank second only to North Carolina in scoring at 3.7 goals per game and fourth in scoring margin at 2.2 goals per game. And the probable starting lineup is headlined by three graduate students and four seniors who stabilize the team.
Meharg thinks this particular Terps squad “is as good as any team that has been to the Final Four. So I’m super confident in our group and our abilities.”
Meharg also cited the players’ resolve. She said they insisted on practicing Tuesday in the rain and cold to continue preparing for Friday’s semifinal. Senior midfielder Emma DeBerdine said she and her teammates knew they would lose part of Sunday traveling eight hours by bus from College Park to Storrs.
“So getting out and moving around no matter how bad the weather was something that we know we needed to do,” said DeBerdine, who ranks fifth on the team in assists (seven) and sixth in points (19). “I think it just shows that we’re all bought into the whole thing and that we’re ready for the Final Four and to fight for the national championship.”
The Terps narrowly defeated Liberty (2-1 in double overtime) and Syracuse (3-2 in a shootout) in the first round and quarterfinals, respectively, to reach the Final Four. Van Rootselaar, who ranks second on the team in goals (12) and third in points (27), admitted that the results were a little too close for comfort.
“I think we could have made it a lot easier for ourselves because I think we dominated in both of those games,” she said. “But everything happens for a reason, and we kept fighting.”
Maryland will face a familiar opponent on Friday in Big Ten archrival Northwestern. The sides split a pair of meetings this fall with the Terps winning in overtime, 2-1, on Oct. 2 in Evanston, Illinois, and the Wildcats returning the favor with a 2-1 victory on Nov. 4 in a conference tournament semifinal in Columbus, Ohio.
DeBerdine refused to validate the saying, “Familiarity breeds contempt.”
“I think there are pros and cons to anyone that we play,” she said. “With Northwestern, we know them really well, and we’ve beaten them once this year and lost to them once this year. After that loss in the Big Ten Tournament, I think it’s going to be a great opportunity to come back and play our best hockey against them.”
Northwestern joined the 1986 Iowa team as the only two Big Ten representatives to capture NCAA titles in field hockey. Meharg said she would like to add Maryland to that list, but wants to make sure that no one has regrets about their effort.
“In anything that you do, you want to be able to look back and say, ‘Wow, there’s nothing I could have done differently or would have wanted to do differently when I walked off that field,’” she said. “If you put that out there and you know what it is, then whatever result happens. When you are in it at that level and you’re present and you’re competing and you’re concentrated and you’re physically at your best, many times the outcome can take care of itself.”
NCAA Final Four
No. 3 Maryland vs. No. 2 Northwestern
Friday, 3 p.m.