No. 1 Terps shake off semifinal pressure

College soccer

December 09, 2005|By KEVIN VAN VALKENBURG | KEVIN VAN VALKENBURG,SUN REPORTER

From an outsider's perspective, the top-ranked University of Maryland men's soccer team has a lot to prove today when it takes on Southern Methodist in the College Cup NCAA semifinals in Cary, N.C.

Three straight times before this season, the Terps have made it this far, and three straight times, their season has ended in disappointment. The final - a place Maryland hasn't been since 1968 - has remained just out of reach, which would seem to place an even heavier burden on this year's team.

But senior defender Chris Lancos, who has started every NCAA tournament game for the Terps since 2002, doesn't see it that way. Past failures aren't fodder for motivation, and they don't increase the pressure. They've simply been wiped clean from his mind.

"Our current team has never lost in a College Cup semifinal," Lancos said. "That's the way I look at it. This collection of guys is extremely close on and off the field, and we've got tremendous work ethic. I feel really good about our chances. We're not thinking about what happened in the past."

There is, in fact, a relaxed air surrounding Maryland (17-4-2) today, and for good reason. A program that has been desperate to claim its first national championship since 1968 seems to understand that it has been perhaps a little too desperate in recent years.

Maryland is just the eighth team in NCAA history to reach the semifinals four consecutive years, but all the pressure, excitement and buildup that come with getting to the College Cup have been a lot to deal with in recent seasons. Today, playing against the unseeded Mustangs (14-5-3), Maryland would prefer to simply relax.

"I think maybe the past three years [in the semifinals], we've made the game seem bigger than it is," said Maryland coach Sasho Cirovski, who has an 18-9-3 record in the NCAA tournament, making 11 trips in 13 seasons with the Terps. "We've gone back to making it seem like just another game, sort of like we've played all year. I think the team appreciates that."

Maryland, which advanced to the semifinals with a thrilling victory over Akron that had to be settled by penalty kicks after a 1-1 tie, won't be entirely at full strength today, however.

Senior defender Kenney Bertz, who scored the Terps' goal against the Zips, will miss the contest with a fractured orbital bone around his eye. Bertz was injured going for a header against Akron, but thought he'd be able to play through the pain. Cirovski said a specialist, however, determined that Bertz would require surgery immediately and would have to sit out.

"It's a big downer to the week," Cirovski said. "It's a significant loss. He's one of the pillars of this team."

Bertz was widely regarded as Maryland's most physical defender, and he also handled most of the Terps' throw-ins. Cirovski said he'll be replaced by A.J. Delagarza, who played well for 35 minutes in Bertz's place against Akron.

If statistics hold up, the winner of today's game will likely be the team that jumps ahead first. Maryland is 16-0-2 this year when scoring the game's first goal, while the underdog Mustangs have scored first in all their tournament games, including upsets of UCLA, UNC-Greensboro and North Carolina.

kevin.vanvalkenburg@baltsun.com

At a glance

What -- NCAA College Cup men's soccer national semifinals

Who -- Maryland (17-4-2) vs. Southern Methodist (14-5-3)

When, TV -- Today, 4 p.m., ESPN2

Where -- Cary, N.C.

Note -- Winner will advance to the College Cup final on Sunday at 2 p.m. (ESPN) against winner of today's Clemson/New Mexico semifinal

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