Bonds to Terps women's lacrosse team made transition easy for freshmen

Maryland freshman Jen Giles (5) is among those who knew teammates before she joined the women's lacrosse team -- her cousin is also on the team.

When Maryland's Kelsey Cummings first set foot on the Terps lacrosse field for September fall ball, she already knew most of her teammates pretty well.

Her sister Taylor Cummings had been a Terp for three years and often brought teammates home to visit. Kelsey, a McDonogh graduate, was also close to a handful of other incoming freshmen who played with her on the same M&D Lacrosse Club team — Jen Giles (Mount Hebron), Megan Taylor (Glenelg), Shelby Mercer (Century) and Meghan Doherty (Mount Hebron). Another freshman, Caroline Steele (Severn), joined the Cummings family on a summer trip to the Bahamas.


Knowing so many other players turned what could have been an intimidating introduction to the two-time defending national champion Terps into a smooth transition.

"If I didn't know anyone and didn't have Taylor there, I think it would have been like, 'I have to put myself out there more and figure out my own path,' which I have done, but having that sense of belonging made it definitely a lot easier," Kelsey Cummings said.


Before they arrived on campus, many of the other freshmen also had connections to the Maryland team, which will play Massachusetts in the NCAA quarterfinals at noon Sunday in College Park.

Shelby Mercer joined her sister Alice. Giles and Julia Braig (St. Paul's) each have a cousin on the team, Taylor Hensh (Marriotts Ridge) and Lindsay Biondi, respectively. Five of the freshmen joined former high school teammates.

To Maryland coach Cathy Reese, so many friends and family connections played a major role in the Terps' ability to rebound from losing seven of last season's starters and pick up critical early wins. In their first six games, the No.1 Terps defeated No. 4 North Carolina, 8-7, No. 3 Syracuse, 14-9, and No. 2 Florida, 14-4.

Reese said the chemistry that has stoked a 20-0 season was there from the start.

"It's what's really unique about this year," said Reese, in her 10th season as the Terps coach.

"To have four different family connections and then Caroline Steele comes in and she's cousins with Kristen Lamon who graduated last year, so they've been around our program for years. They know the culture here. They know what Maryland lacrosse is all about. They know what's expected of them, so the learning curve is a lot smaller for them."

The Terps start three freshmen. Attacker Steele, fourth on the team in goals with 31, and defender Braig started from the first game. Taylor has started since the second game and earned Big Ten Goaltender of the Year honors with a 6.5 goals-against average. Giles, fifth in goals with 24, has played about half of every game.

While they brought the skills to succeed, they also came into an atmosphere fostered by the coaches and veterans that made every player equal from two-time Tewaaraton Award winner Taylor Cummings to the freshman who barely plays.


"Starting out being in a different environment is obviously nerve-racking," Giles said, "but all the upperclassmen made everyone feel that we had a spot on the team and that we could contribute. Knowing that you could take risks on the field and have your teammates support you made for a good work environment where we weren't afraid to try new things. We could go all out and be able to play our best no matter what."

A year ago, Megan Whittle was the only freshman in the starting lineup and she felt almost apologetic at first about scoring goals, feeling the veterans probably should have had them.

"When I came in, I didn't know the majority of players," Whittle said. "I had played with Taylor [Cummings] and Casey Pepperman at McDonogh, but all I knew was I needed to live up to those expectations. I was really excited to be a part of it, but going into it as a freshman I was a little timid. I was worried about whether I would fit in."

Whittle is quick to add that the older players did not make her feel intimidated and that as the season progressed, she quickly settled in and led the Terps with 67 goals.

"Coming into this year I wanted to make sure that all of the freshmen were comfortable," Whittle said, "and they already were because everyone's related to each other or played with each other before."

Kelsey Cummings, who has played in 11 games, said the freshmen never felt that winning another national championship hinged on the way they played. While some of them have been critical to Maryland's success, she said, the drive to succeed came from within.


Alice Mercer said she could see how the support from the veterans helped the newcomers feel comfortable in a hurry.

"Sometimes when you're a young player and you have a lot to offer, you're afraid to show it," she said, "so I think when they came in feeling so comfortable with the rest of us, they weren't afraid to show their colors, show how good they were."

The players also credit Reese with fostering that atmosphere. A former Terps' All-America attacker and a Mount Hebron graduate, she doesn't put up with any form of hierarchy within the team. Many of the players consider her a second mom and the team a second family.

Reese, the mother of four, jokes that God gave her three boys because she already had 31 girls — plus 8-year-old daughter Cayden.

Now, the Terps hope their chemistry can carry them to the program's 14th national championship and their fifth undefeated season. If they can get past Massachusetts, they will move on to the national semifinals for the eighth straight year, held May 27 at Talen Energy Stadium (formerly PPL Park) in Philadelphia.

With almost a full season completed, the young players are well versed in their roles; it's hard to tell the freshmen from most of the veterans.


"I think the way we interact with each other, the way we play with each other, our dynamic as a team all revolves around how close we are," Kelsey Cummings said, "and that stems from knowing each other before college or forming those bonds very quickly when you come here. The way our team is set up, it's just such a smooth transition that everyone feels included, that as a freshman you don't walk in feeling afraid and worried about fitting in. You walk in and you're like, 'I'm going to love the next four years of my life.'"

An earlier version of this story gave the wrong alma mater for Julia Braig. The Sun regrets the error.