Maryland sophomore defender Donovan Pines (River Hill) controls the ball against Indiana in September.
Maryland sophomore defender Donovan Pines (River Hill) controls the ball against Indiana in September. (Maryland Athletics)

“I love cells.” Donovan Pines said this earnestly Tuesday, outside the Varsity Team House, as his Maryland men’s soccer team stretched out before an afternoon practice on a nearby field. Pines also loves the biology department at Maryland, loves the environment, but this organic-chemistry course he’s taking this semester? That, he does not love.

Pines would one day like to work in the science field, and “orgo,” as it’s known at schools across the country, is said to be a weed-out class. Between the hours he’s put in as the lynchpin of the Terps’ back line this fall and the classes he’s missed for road games and the exam he had to push back recently because of a concussion, orgo could be going better. He’s needed to enlist a tutor’s help. Coach Sasho Cirovski calls Pines a “perfectionist”; the sophomore defender would settle for survival at this point.

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“Just trying to pull out a good grade and pass the class,” Pines said. “That's the goal for right now.”

Ahead of a first-round NCAA tournament match Thursday night against visiting Albany (14-4-2), Maryland’s aim isn’t so different. Losers of five straight for the first time since 1993, the Terps (10-5-3) have lowered their sights in recent weeks. They’ve gone from wanting a Big Ten Conference title to wanting to just get healthy. After scoring four goals as an undefeated No. 1 seed and still losing in its NCAA tournament opener last season, Maryland would settle for fewer goals and one more game.

Slumping Terps soccer to play Albany in NCAA tournament opener Thursday

One of the strangest seasons in the program’s hallowed history will continue for at least one more game.

“Ever since we lost last season,” Cirovski said, “this is the only thing that we were looking forward to.”

For the first time in over a month, he’ll have his defense intact. With left back Chase Gasper (groin) set to rejoin center backs Pines and Johannes Bergmann and right back George Campbell (McDonogh), Maryland will rely once more on the back four, who in their first 12 games together allowed just seven goals. To get to Sunday’s second-round game at No. 10 seed Western Michigan, they’ll need to stand tall against the America East Conference champion Great Danes.

Good thing, then, to have the 6-foot-5 Pines, the cell lover from Clarksville who doesn’t lack for good genes: His mother, Sylvia, played lacrosse at West Chester (Pa.). His father, Darryll, the dean of Maryland’s engineering school, was a high school basketball star. That explains the athleticism.

At River Hill, Pines said, he dunked as a freshman on the Hawks junior varsity boys basketball team. (He can dunk off two feet now — “of course,” he joked, as if asked whether he knew what ribosomes are.) During downtime in the summer, the Terps played volleyball. That became another showcase for Pines, who has scored just once this fall but dominated around the net then.

“I can say I'm pretty athletic,” Pines said.

“He is an off-the-charts athlete,” Cirovski corrected. “He's the fastest guy. He's got the highest vertical. He is incredible.”

That has been the case for some time now. He was the captain of his D.C. United academy team in high school. He made just three starts last season and still earned Big Ten All-Freshman Team honors. This year, he upgraded to second-team All-Big Ten.

Even in a 1-0 loss to then-No. 13 Georgetown last month, the Terps’ first regular-season defeat since 2015, his “almost limitless” potential, as Cirovski put it, was maybe never more apparent. Campbell, a converted forward, remembered battling against Pines last year in practice and getting “three steps on him,” only to lose the ball on a sliding tackle from the long-legged freshman who had seemed 10 feet away.

“It’s miserable,” Campbell said, and the Hoyas looked it for much of the night against Pines, who soared for headers, disrupted crosses and won tackles with ease. Late in the second half, with the game scoreless, the Ludwig Field crowd oohed as Pines, looking ready to pass to his right, instead made a deft pass to his left with the inside of his sweeping right foot. The approaching Georgetown attacker’s head whipped around in disbelief.

A minute later, Pines was retreating to the 18-yard box as the Hoyas countered. He stuck his left foot out at a pass aimed behind him, but the ball went backward, away from him and Bergmann, who was cramping at the worst possible time. Georgetown’s Jacob Montes took the deflection in stride and beat goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair. The Hoyas had averaged 16.9 shots per game coming into the match; they needed only six to win. Maryland’s season hasn’t been the same since.

“Donovan's really hard on himself. … He wants to please on every play — his teammates, coaches, everybody,” Cirovski said. “We've seen a lot of growth in him. … He's a player [who] over the next couple of years, I think, is going to even grow by leaps and bounds, and I think has a very bright future beyond Maryland.”

Pines’ short-term goals are a little simpler. In the next semester or two, he’d like a College Cup appearance — the Terps’ first since 2013 — and to settle on a concentration. It’ll be either ecology and evolution or something in environmental science. “I love the field,” he said, by which he meant biology.

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