Out of Terps shell at last

Seniors: After 3, even 4, losing seasons, the Class of 2001 finds a sense of redemption in Maryland's top year in decades.

November 16, 2001|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - Mixed among the many triumphs of Maryland's football season is that of the senior class. The 19 players who will suit up in their final regular-season game tomorrow night against North Carolina State are now seen by others as they have always seen themselves.

After three straight seasons of coming up short, that's what nine wins do - create a legacy. This is regardless of what happens in Raleigh, even though some insist the work isn't done.

"Until we hit that 10-win mark, I still don't feel that," said outside linebacker Aaron Thompson, a fifth-year player. "Ten-and-one would make me feel like I've contributed something."

But, for now, the Terps who will likely end their college football days in early January, already have the school's highest win total since 1985, the program's first winning season since 1995 and its first major bowl appearance since 1976.

For the first time since the early 1980s, Byrd Stadium was packed last weekend for a game in which Maryland clinched a share of its first Atlantic Coast Conference title in 16 years. The 10th-ranked Terps can win the title outright with a win over the Wolfpack. On the strength of this season, this senior group has 22 wins over four years, making it the best since 1988's senior class left with 23.

"Sometimes when I go to the training table and I see some of the old pictures on the wall, I see guys I used to play with and I think to myself, these are some guys who came in and tried to get it done and couldn't," Thompson said. "This group here, we overcame all the obstacles and got it done."

Starters Thompson, center Melvin Fowler and safety Tony Jackson are among seven who arrived in 1997 for Ron Vanderlinden's first season as coach. Most of the other 12 showed up a year later, determined to change the atmosphere around the Maryland program.

Though the Terps won a total of 13 games from 1995 through 1997, the players who entered in 1998 thought they would be about anything but losing.

"We had a slogan," said tailback Marc Riley. "We were `the new crew.' We were going to be the ones who would make the difference."

It took much longer than Riley and his fellow freshmen would have envisioned. Maryland won three games in his first year. In 1999, the Terps shot out to a 5-2 start under the running of LaMont Jordan, then imploded during a four-game skid to end the season.

Last year, the Terps started 2-4 before winning three straight, only to lose the final two games, costing Vanderlinden his job.

Charles Hill said there was always progress, though it never seemed like it because it never came fast enough.

"Our record never got worse. It always got better," said Hill, a defensive tackle. "I just wanted to leave with a better record than when I started here."

"In the last two years, we went 5-6," Fowler said, "but those seasons could have been 8-3 and maybe even 9-2."

But an actual winning record was the goal, and after the Terps had fallen just short two years in a row, there were doubts about what kind of mark the then-juniors would leave on the program.

"That's what we always talked about, but this time last year, we weren't thinking this far ahead," senior wide receiver Guilian Gary said. "I don't think anyone thought we'd have the chance to win 10 games this year."

The man who often gets the credit is coach Ralph Friedgen, who took over the team a little less than a year ago, brought a veteran staff with him and is now a major candidate for national Coach of the Year honors.

But Friedgen attributed much of the team's success to the influence of his senior class, which could have coasted in light of its previous disappointments and wilted under his demands - such as pre-dawn workouts and faster-paced practices.

"You talk about perseverance," said Friedgen, the first ACC coach to win the league in his first year. "They never got down. They always hung in there and have done everything I have asked them to do. They paid the price."

They were the ones who Friedgen said he depended on to get his team out of whatever funk it might have been in after its loss to Florida State last month.

Though easier said than done, Friedgen said, "I have a lot of confidence in our senior leadership, and we'll see," heading into the Troy State game, which Maryland won, 47-14.

"We put in the work," said Jackson, one of eight senior starters. "The coaches can only do so much."

The seniors won't see much of what may come as a result of their efforts. They won't play with the better players who may suddenly find Maryland attractive. The sellout last Saturday will be the only one they play before at Byrd.

With a game tomorrow and a bowl game a month or so later, the seniors don't expect to savor what they've been able to accomplish - nor the context in which they have done it - anytime soon.

But that day will come.

A year ago, quarterback Shaun Hill said he wondered "am I going to be proud of playing at Maryland? Now, I can say I'm very sure I will be."

NOTE: Inside linebacker E.J. Henderson was named one of three finalists for the Butkus Award, given to the nation's best linebacker as voted by media. Henderson, a junior from Aberdeen, joins Oklahoma's Rocky Calmus and UCLA's Robert Thomas as contenders for the award, which will be given Dec. 7 in Orlando, Fla. Originally, Henderson wasn't put on the preseason watch list for the award, but he recently broke Randy White's school record for tackles for loss with 25, and has 130 tackles overall. "In the preseason, I didn't think about it," Henderson said. "We had a lot of team goals. ... I knew that if I played to my ability, all the attention would come."

Next for Maryland Opponent: N.C. State

Site: Carter-Finley Stadium, Raleigh, N.C.

When: Tomorrow, 7:45 p.m.

TV/Radio: ESPN/WBAL (1090 AM), WTEM (980 AM)

Line: Terps by 3

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