Maryland women's lacrosse rolls past Denver, 17-8, earns 11th straight NCAA final four berth

Only rarely have there been times of crisis in College Park for the Maryland women’s lacrosse team’s senior class. Those Terps entered Saturday night’s NCAA tournament quarterfinal against Denver a combined 44-0 inside the Field Hockey and Lacrosse Complex and Maryland Stadium. Few games have been close.

Caroline Steele has been there every season, a starter since her freshman year. The Severn graduate has won a national championship, three Big Ten tournament titles, four Big Ten regular-season titles. When North Carolina took the Terps to the brink earlier this year, she uncorked the overtime winner. When Stony Brook had Maryland on the ropes two years ago in the NCAA tournament, she had a late tying goal.

Of course, the Terps won that game. That’s all they’ve known here since 2012. Their home winning streak reached 87 games Saturday night because of seniors like Steele, always there in times of need but more inclined to produce evenings of comfort. Her career-high seven goals powered top-seeded Maryland’s 17-8 win at Maryland Stadium, by far the Pioneers’ worst loss of the season, and sent the Terps (20-1) to their 11th straight final four.

“I mean, best place on earth, right?” Steele said. “To win my last game at home, to never lose here, it speaks to our team and our coaches, the senior class. We've just all worked so hard to get here, and we're excited to get back to the final four and we can't wait to get back to work.”

Maryland, the Big Ten regular-season champion, will face fourth-seeded Northwestern, the conference’s tournament champion, on Friday at Johns Hopkins' Homewood Field. The Wildcats fell to the Terps in Evanston, Ill., last month before handing them their lone loss of the season, a 16-11 defeat in the Big Ten final, two weekends ago. No. 2 seed Boston College and No. 3 seed North Carolina will face off in the other semifinal.

None of the four teams still standing had as comprehensive a quarterfinal win as Maryland. The Terps led by double digits with almost 20 minutes remaining; their 14 goals at that point were more than double what Denver (16-4), the nation’s No. 1 scoring defense, had allowed per game.

But the night belonged to Steele, who bent the game to her name. After the attacker scored her first of the night, on a man-up opportunity early in the first half, the stadium’s public-address announcer played — what else? — Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.” A fitting soundtrack, indeed, for a game in which she became just the seventh Terp to reach 200 career goals.

For her second and fourth goals, Sweet Caroline Steele became Caroline Steal. After a Maryland possession ended in Pioneers goalie Carson Gregg’s crosse, Steele shot her stick skyward as Gregg (Severna Park) attempted an outlet pass. The ball bounced off Steele’s crosse and onto the ground. Steele beat Gregg to the ball, then beat her with a quick shot inside.

Maryland’s lead had grown to 7-2 by the time she stole again. As a Denver defender retreated to Gregg’s crease with the ball in her control, it was as if Steele had read her mind. She beat Gregg to the spot where the ball had been left for her, reached her stick out to collect the unclaimed orb and stuffed it in the net. Denver, making its first appearance in an NCAA quarterfinal, protested; Maryland just celebrated.

“Steele is absolutely awesome at that,” said junior attacker Brindi Griffin (McDonogh), who had four goals and two assists. “Not a lot of people can do what she does. So, yeah, it's always fun playing beside her.”

It was a night of almost endless celebration. The Terps led 9-3 at halftime and enjoyed a running clock for much of the second half. The contributions were appropriately upperclassman-heavy. Senior midfielder Erica Evans had three goals and an assist. Senior midfielder Jen Giles (Mount Hebron) added a goal. Senior goalie Megan Taylor (Glenelg) faced just 16 shots and stopped eight.

After senior attacker Kelsey Cummings (McDonogh) scored Maryland’s final goal of the night, coach Cathy Reese said she jumped off the sideline grass, pumping both fists.

“All of our seniors finished on the field together, and all of my seniors on offense scored today,” she said. “So I think that's just really something special that just shows a lot.”

Denver sophomore attacker Quintin Hoch-Bullen and senior attacker Julia Feiss (Bryn Mawr) led Denver with two goals apiece. Gregg, second nationally in goals-against average (7.22), stopped just five of 16 shots before getting pulled.

NCAA final four

No. 1 seed Maryland vs. No. 4 seed Northwestern

Johns Hopkins' Homewood Field

Friday, TBA

Video: ESPN3

jshaffer@baltsun.com

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