Campus on Terrapins and needles? Not hardly

Support is lackluster as women go for title

April 04, 2006|By CANDUS THOMSON | CANDUS THOMSON,SUN REPORTER

College Park -- It's hoops Armageddon tonight. A matchup for the ages: Maryland versus Duke, for all the marbles.

But one day before the NCAA showdown for the women's national title, Turtletown was a ghost town. The streets were quiet. Signs on shops were more likely to proclaim a free oil change with every brake job or a "big keg sale" than undying love for the basketball team.

On campus, which should have been blooming red, black reigned supreme in student wear. Only a single, generic "Go Terps" basketball banner hung from the Stamp Student Union.

At the Smoothie King on U.S. 1 just down the road from the university, where a giant Testudo looked down from the wall, Bobby Gill shrugged as he worked the blender.

"I don't know why," he said. "The women play great, and they've had an amazing season."

Maryland, with a 33-4 record, reached the title game by beating top-ranked North Carolina in the semifinals Sunday night. The team will face No. 1 seed Duke (31-3).

Excuses for the lackluster support are many: The semifinal game was late on Sunday, a heavy-duty study and laundry day; fans are still getting over the poor showing by the men's team; the switch to daylight-saving from standard time delayed student reaction; the media spotlight has been elsewhere, following the unlikely run of George Mason's men's team to the Final Four.

"I think there are more people who would rather have a Mason men's shirt than a Maryland women's shirt," said Jason Juzwiak, a recent graduate who works at the Maryland Book Exchange.

It's not like Maryland fans pull their heads into their shells when things get a little exciting. They packed the old Cole Field House to the rafters during the team's 2002 NCAA championship season. They camped out to buy tickets for a regular-season game against the hated Blue Devils, and hundreds of them spilled onto U.S. 1 after the semifinal victory over the University of Kansas.

But this is different. It's not men's basketball, even though that team didn't set the world on fire this season.

"Normally, when the guys play, it's crazy," said Shannon Augustus, 21, a senior from Fort Washington. "When the guys play, there are reporters all over. Today, I don't see a lot of reporters out there."

Toby Matejovsky, 21, a junior from Timonium, agreed. "The men's program is the flagship. They get the press no matter what happens."

But Matejovsky and others think even hard-core fans of the men's team will come around.

"Guys like a winning team, and the girls are hot right now," he said. "They get the job done, and that's what counts."

Zena Grant, a 2004 graduate, has turned her husband, Deandre, into a Maryland fan. With a military transfer to Hawaii just days away, they were stocking up on Terps gear to take with them.

"I'm shocked. I expected there would be a lot going on," she said. "But if everyone hasn't jumped on board by the end of this season, they'll be with them next season."

After 41 years of running the Maryland Book Exchange, Ted Ankeney has seen the fortunes of different teams rise and fall. The women's success "is too new" to be embraced by a casual audience, but winning will change everything, he says.

"Our starting five has a junior, two sophomores and two freshmen. I think we're just getting started here," he said. "There's no reason we can't be the next Connecticut or Tennessee."

Ankeney has already placed an order with a silk-screening shop if the local team wins the title, "and I hope they're printing Maryland championship shirts late into the night."

Although the buzz is missing in College Park, all 551 rooms at the team's hotel in Boston, the Omni Parker House, are booked for tonight's game.

Nelson and Elaine Gibson of Fairhaven are season ticket-holders who have gone to all 16 games at the Comcast Center. They've also traveled with the team to the Paradise Jam at the U.S. Virgin Islands in November, the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament in North Carolina, the NCAA Tournament in Pennsylvania and New Mexico, and now the Final Four in Boston.

The Gibsons said they have enjoyed unheard-of access with the players and coaches.

"We're welcome at practice, and to the credit of the coaches and players, they're still the same people today as they were back in November," Elaine Gibson said. "It's a lot of fun."

As if to prove her point, assistant coach Joanna Bernabei stood in the hotel lobby for about 20 minutes, talking to about 20 Terrapin Club members.

Many of the supporters said they weren't surprised that the women's team is not generating the level of interest that the men's team enjoyed when it made its run to the national championship in 2002.

"I don't think we can expect that in Maryland until the program continues to be strong like a Tennessee or a Connecticut," said Ruth Lampert of New Windsor. "They have to develop a winning attitude among the fans. ... Before, you could go in and hear yourself talk. Now we have some seats filled in."

Added Elaine Gibson: "It'll never be like that, and thank goodness for that. When the team wins tomorrow, the students won't set any fires."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Edward Lee contributed to this article.

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