At every Maryland field hockey game, Linnea Gonzales knows where to look. There, standing at the top of the bleachers, is family: her mother, her father, her older sister. Sitting next to them is Landon. He’s her older brother by 2 years. He’s autistic. And he is nothing if not reliable.
On Sunday, the Terps trailed second-seeded Duke 2-1 late in the second half of their NCAA tournament quarterfinal when the host Blue Devils conceded a penalty corner. This was Landon’s cue. “If you listen closely on all the corners,” Gonzales said, “you can hear him yell, 'Get one!’ ” There was a call, and there was a response: Defender Bodil Keus ripped a shot into the top right corner of the goal. Tie game.
Less than two minutes later, Gonzales got one, too, the game’s final one. The junior forward’s deflection of midfielder Lein Holsboer’s point-blank pass looped like a rainbow toward Duke’s net, and by the time the ball settled in the back of the cage, Gonzales had pumped her fist and spun around in full-body exhilaration.
Her goal was the difference in a 3-2 upset win, and it meant another weekend on the road for the program and the brother she has never strayed far from. Maryland (15-6), her childhood dream school, will play No. 3 seed Michigan (21-2) in the Final Four on Friday, the Terps’ first such appearance since 2013. Trager Stadium in Louisville, Ky., is only a 10-hour drive from Bel Air for the Gonzaleses, so Landon will be there, too.
“Going to watch her play a lot has always been good for him to be around other people, and he really seems like he thrives when the games are exciting and the people are yelling and screaming,” said their mother, Robin Gonzales. “In the excitement, he gets excited and he's smiling, and it just brings out a happy part of him.”
They have always been there for each other, brother and sister. Linnea started playing field hockey in third grade, and Robin and her husband, Angel, made family trips out of her games, Landon always tagging along. Some on the autism spectrum have an acute sensitivity to loud noise, but he seemed to revel in the excitement of the voices around him.
They developed differently through adolescence, Linnea into a United States youth national team player, Landon into a high-functioning teenager. In the ninth grade, he enrolled at Patterson Mill, which offered a program for autistic students. Two years later, Linnea followed.
She could’ve decided not to. C. Milton Wright was her assigned high school. Her childhood friends were going there. She applied for a boundary exception from Harford County Public Schools anyway.
“I wanted to be close to him,” Linnea said, “and not separated.”
She found an unexpected ally in the Huskies’ field hockey program. Her coach, Shannon Swinscoe, was also Landon’s gym teacher. Linnea said it was as if they were all connected, all working together.
“I think having [Landon] there kind of helped. He was kind of known,” Robin said. “Instead of making things harder, it seemed like it made things easier for her.”
“I think the thing about Linnea that is so special is, she just leads herself,” Maryland coach Missy Meharg said.
Linnea would remain close for college, too, but that always seemed inevitable. In middle school, she was a ball girl at Terps games. She was a regular at team camps. She had five sticks signed by her field hockey idol, Katie O’Donnell Bam, a four-time All-American at Maryland.
Linnea considered Old Dominion and Duke, but her first official visit, in the summer before her sophomore year, was to College Park. When it ended, she said she knew she belonged. “A no-brainer,” her mother said of the decision to commit.
Linnea has gone on to All-Big Ten Conference honors in two of her first three years at Maryland, but Landon’s out of school now. He has more time for activities. A day program takes him to the bowling alley or the movie theater or the library. Eating is a favorite hobby. (Fortunately, so is running.) He likes collecting old VHS movies, the Disney classics especially.
And when he hasn’t seen his younger sister in a while, Linnea said, he’ll ask, “Where’s ’Nea?” The answer usually comes with the Gonzaleses’ next trip out of Bel Air. Landon looks forward to them now, Linnea said. On the road, he listens to the jams of Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5. Around the program’s fans, he’s “treated like a king,” Linda said, offered all the food he can stomach.
Maybe the highlight of game weekends, though, comes after the game, when he lines up by the side of the field and the Terps come over for high-fives, hugs and “Hi, Landon”s. Linnea might stay to take a photograph with Landon and crack a joke, fellow junior forward Julie Duncan said, “just like they’re best friends.”
“She has someone that looks up to her so much and just thinks that she's — well, she is a superstar,” Duncan said. “But in his eyes, she's, like, the greatest thing, and it's really cute how she is just always there for him, too.”