Everything about the Maryland men’s soccer team’s march to its fourth national championship last weekend took on a magical feel for Donovan Pines — with one exception.
The junior center back had capped the 11th-seeded Terps’ 2-0 upset of No. 2 seed Indiana in Friday night’s semifinal in Santa Barbara, Calif., with the third goal of his career. Junior midfielder Eli Crognale booted a free kick 40 yards toward Hoosiers sophomore goalkeeper Trey Muse, but the ball deflected off the head of redshirt senior defender Timmy Mehl. Pines maneuvered in front of senior defender and MAC Hermann Trophy finalist Andrew Gutman for a right-footed redirection that squirted the ball between Muse’s legs and into the net with 11:02 left in the second half.
As deftly executed as the goal was, however, Pines wondered aloud if his post-goal cartwheel was somewhat lacking.
“I didn’t know what to do,” the Clarksville resident and River Hill graduate said Monday night after the team had returned to campus and a raucous welcome by about 80 students and fans. “The cartwheel could have been better, but I just didn’t know what to do because I was so happy that I got that goal for the team. We were just one step closer to getting to the finals. So that was big.”
If that’s the lone criticism aimed at Pines, Maryland (13-6-4) surely won’t mind. Two days later, the program captured its first national title since 2008 with a 1-0 win against unseeded Akron, and Pines was a member of a defense that shut out five opponents in the NCAA tournament, including Indiana, No. 3 seed Kentucky and No. 10 seed Duke.
The back-line chemistry of Pines, senior Chase Gasper, junior Johannes Bergmann and sophomore Ben Di Rosa proved pivotal, but coach Sasho Cirovski called Pines “probably the best shutdown defender in the country.”
Redshirt junior goalie Dayne St. Clair said the 6-foot-5, 195-pound Pines provided a level of comfort whenever he patrolled the box in front of the net.
“Not only does he have the physical build, but also the athletic capabilities to go along with that,” St. Clair said. “I just think it’s superb to have a 6-foot-5 guy that’s the fastest player on your team. It’s outrageous almost, I think. There’s just so much confidence that the rest of the team has in him and his athletic abilities to cover for guys.”
Per his humble nature, Pines, who called his teammates “my brothers,” credited the entire unit with keeping opponents off the scoreboard.
“I think we pride ourselves on blocking shots and defending,” he said. “It all boils down just to being diamond tough, just being very tough at all times, and I think building up from the spring and playing in England and then going through the fall and the preseason, that prepared us so well as a cohesive unit. Even though we lost the first game to Washington, it was kind of a turning point just to say, ‘We need to get better at communicating. Focus on defending. Make sure we’re tight and compact.’ And as we went through the season, we got better and better, and we just completely shut down the opposition in the tournament and found our place at No. 1.”
Not usually one to publicly contradict his players, Cirovski said Pines’ athleticism helped him stand out, especially in the second half of the season.
“Tactically, he keeps improving, and his confidence is just starting to emerge,” Cirovski said. “He’s starting to become a leader back there, and I just think we’re starting to see this young man blossom right in front of our eyes. With every game, he gets better and better. So it’s been great. If you ask our guys on the team who is the toughest player they’ve played against all year, they’ll say it’s Donovan. They can’t get by him in practice.”
Pines’ performance this fall helped him earn recognition as a second-team All-American, as a first-team Big Ten defender and as the 30th-ranked player on Top Drawer Soccer’s Top 100 players in college soccer at the season’s midpoint. It also has kicked off musings about whether Pines, a biology major and the son of the university’s engineering dean, will give up his final year of eligibility and turn pro.
Pines, who attended D.C. United’s youth academy and whose Major League Soccer rights are owned by the club, said he is open to signing with D.C. United or testing the waters overseas.
“I’ll talk to my parents and see what they want me to do because they’re the people who pushed me and made me the person that I am today,” he said. “I just want to be myself and be the best that I can be. I’ll just see what my options are and be open-minded.”
Cirovski is fully aware of the buzz generated by Pines’ play and said he would endorse a move to the professional level.
“My job here is to help support the dreams of my players, and we’ll evaluate every opportunity that might be there,” he said. “Some might be great and some might not be so great. So I think we’ll sit down with the family — I have a great relationship with the family — and take a look at all of those things. But Donovan loves the experience he has here, and I know that he still feels like he can grow. So he’s going to have some real opportunities and some real choices.”
Before delving into that subject though, Pines has more important matters to tackle — namely, papers in psychology statistics and leadership and an exam in genetics for finals week.
“I should be OK, but I’ve just got to make sure that I progress my way and that I study periodically and that I make sure that I take breaks because sometimes I get overwhelmed,” he said with a smile. “I’ve just got to take my time and do what I have to do to be successful.”
Maryland’s pipeline to MLS
The Maryland men’s soccer program has sent dozens of players to Major League Soccer. Here is a list of former Terps, with the years they played at Maryland, who are currently playing at the MLS level.
Mikey Ambrose (2012-13): Defender, Atlanta United FC
Marc Burch (2005): Defender, Minnesota United FC
A.J. DeLaGarza (2005-08): Defender, Houston Dynamo
Taylor Kemp (2009-12): Defender, D.C. United
Zac MacMath (2008-10): Goalkeeper, Colorado Rapids
Patrick Mullins (2010-13): Forward, Columbus Crew SC
Chris Odoi-Atsem (2013-16): Defender, D.C. United
Chris Seitz (2005-06): Goalkeeper, Houston Dynamo