University of Maryland lacrosse coach Dave Cottle didn't have to think long and hard about the question. The Terrapins are playing their best lacrosse of the season at the right time, but they can approach new heights.
"If Harry Alford could carry this team, it would take our team to another level," said Cottle, when asked about Alford's potential.
That would place No. 2 seed Maryland somewhere in the same universe with No. 1 seed Virginia, which is clearly the class of a final four that also consists of Syracuse and Massachusetts.
Cottle isn't trying to prod his star goalkeeper, nor are the Terps (12-4) looking ahead to the title game, because they still have to face Massachusetts (12-4) in the semifinals Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. But Alford is playing well at a time when a goalie has to be at his best.
And if Maryland makes it to the championship game, Alford will have to be at his best - and then some - against either Virginia or Syracuse.
"We don't know a lot about UMass, and we'll get more on them later in the week," said Alford, a junior from Washington, D.C., and St. Albans high school. "We do know that they have a long-stick defenseman who is good at facing off, and can start a fast break. We know they have a lot of heart and a no-quit attitude.
"Virginia, if we play them again, it will be the third time, and I'm tired of seeing them on the [winning] side of the score," he said. "Virginia has some really smart players on the offensive side of the ball, and they feed on each other."
The Terps want to feed off Alford.
He has been playing well (nearly .630 save percentage) since being benched in the first quarter of the game against Navy on April 8. It was a low point for Alford, but it turned out to be a high point for Maryland. Since then, he has been outstanding, especially on his distribution in clearing the ball. Maryland was 16 of 18 on clears Sunday in an 11-6 quarterfinal victory against Princeton.
Alford also had eight saves against the Tigers.
"He didn't particularly like the situation he was in at the time," Cottle said of the benching. "But he came in and we talked about it. We told him that the starting position was up for grabs, and that if he played well, he would earn the starting position back. Since then, he has been very consistent."
Alford suggested it wasn't about technique, but scheme.
"At that time, we were still focusing on schemes," Alford said. "Then we started getting back to fundamentals, which we're focusing on now. That's what you do this time of year. I know I haven't played the perfect game yet. Maybe I will Saturday, or Monday, or maybe next year. All I know is that I have a lot of work to do."
Alford can be an opposing team's nightmare because he has all the necessary skills. He has quickness, the good stick and the quick hands. He has an initial burst in his first step toward the ball. He has great athleticism, which allows him to take the ball up field.
Experience is no problem. Alford has been a starter since his sophomore year when he opened the 2005 season with 25 saves against Georgetown. Last year, he was the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament Most Valuable Player and received All-America recognition. Alford has a lot of priorities, such as getting Maryland a championship, but he also has become an ambassador for the sport.
Alford, an African-American, is working on plans with his mother, Kay DeBow, and father, Harry C. Alford, who is president of the National Black Chamber of Commerce, to teach the sport of lacrosse in Africa and South America. It might sound unrealistic, but no more unrealistic than having an African-American goalie.
"First you have a black guy playing lacrosse, and then it's, `Oh my God, he's a goalie,'" Alford said. "It surprises people because I'm not like [Johns Hopkins alum] Kyle Harrison, a middie with all this talent and speed. I think when kids watch me, especially if they see it on television, they can say, `I can do that,' and they can go out and accomplish something."
But the immediate goal is the championship. Alford had 12 saves in a 9-8 overtime win against Georgetown in the quarterfinals last season, but struggled with only eight saves in an 18-9 loss to Duke in the semifinals. He started slowly Sunday, but he became a dominating factor in the second half.
He has to turn his game up another notch this weekend.
"We're always kidding around with him about stealing one game at some point," said Cottle, laughing.
Said Alford: "It feels great to get back to the final four. It's like a second chance. Last year it was great just to make it, but this year it's about getting through to Monday. I know that every position has to win the individual battle for the team to gel together and win. But if I play well, the confidence of our middies and attack will grow because they know we can get the ball up and down the field."
And that puts the Terps at an entirely new level.
At a glance
College -- Maryland Founded -- 1807 Location -- College Park Enrollment -- 25,140 undergraduates Tuition and board --$19,277 (in state); $35,144 (out of state); $18,315 (room and board) Famous alumni -- TV producer Jim Henson; comedian Larry David; anchorwoman Connie Chung; journalist Carl Bernstein; former NFL players Boomer Esiason and Randy White Academic ranking -- Tied for No. 55 among national universities, according to U.S. News & World Report School colors -- Red, white, black and gold Nickname -- Terrapins, named after the state reptile, the diamondback terrapin Last trip to final four -- 2005 NCAA lacrosse titles --Two (1973, 1975)
Men's final four
Virginia (15-0) vs. Syracuse (10-4), 11:30 a.m., ESPN2
Maryland (12-4) vs. Massachusetts (12-4), 2 p.m., ESPN2 Monday's championship
Semifinal winners, 1 p.m., ESPN