The Maryland women's soccer team entered this season knowing things would be different.
A Sweet 16 finish in last year's NCAA tournament made the Terps a target in the Atlantic Coast Conference. It was, perhaps, the first time in the program's history that the Maryland women started the season as legitimate title contenders just a few steps away from escaping the shadow of the Terps' vaunted men's program.
The Terps quietly and confidently stormed through their schedule with a 15-2-1 overall record, and when they begin the ACC tournament today with an opening-round contest against Duke, they will do so as a No. 2 seed prepared to reach the zenith of college soccer.
"I think last year kind of built confidence with our kids and built a real belief that we can be pretty darn good," Maryland coach Brian Pensky said. "If they're doing it on the men's side, then why can't we do it on the women's side?"
On Tuesday, Pensky was honored as the ACC Coach of the Year, while junior forward Jasmyne Spencer, who leads the Terps with nine goals and 23 points, was selected as a first-team All-ACC player for the second consecutive year.
Spencer is one of three Maryland players with 20 or more points this season, and senior midfielder Caitlin McDowell's 11 assists are the most by a Terps player since 1998. After years of playing a more defensive brand of soccer, Maryland has evolved into a second-half force with come-from-behind victories in two of its past three games.
Junior forward Sade Ayinde is a testament to Maryland's depth, scoring eight goals and 22 points in 15 games off the bench.
"I think it's great that we have multiple big-time goal scorers and Sade coming off the bench," Spencer said. "It makes it hard for defensive lines to key in and try to take away a big-time scorer when you have so many of us to look out for."
For a school rich in soccer excellence, fortune has not always been on the Maryland women's side. McDowell experienced the nadir of a 1-8-1 conference record in 2007 and remembers the first game of her college career -- when Maryland unloaded 55 shots but couldn't find the net in a 0-0 stalemate against Eastern Kentucky.
"It's been a roller coaster, but an amazing experience," McDowell said. "I knew this program had so much potential, and I'm finally getting to see how good we can be."
Twice this season the Terps (7-2-1 ACC) defeated the then-No.2 team in the nation, beginning with a 2-1 victory over Boston College on Oct. 7. A landmark 2-1 win over powerhouse North Carolina on Oct. 24 functioned both as Maryland's first victory over the Tar Heels in program history and as an exclamation point during a stellar campaign; the Terps' .861 winning percentage is the highest in school history.
After their most recent victory over the Tar Heels, the Terps are eager for a rematch. On top of wanting to prove the win wasn't a fluke, Pensky knows that the only way to stamp a national identity on his team is by continually knocking off the top programs in the country. Something, it seems, the Terps are getting pretty good at.
"You've got to want to beat the best, and that's the challenge we use with our recruits," Pensky said. "We've got a great stadium and strong academics. There's no reason why we can't be successful."