Terps semi tough again

Underrated at season's start, UM achieves 4th straight final four

College Field hockey

November 17, 2006|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,Sun reporter

Maryland's field hockey team was supposed to have more difficulty this fall - after three straight trips to the NCAA semifinals - with three All-Americans missing from last season's national championship team and a newfound reliance on freshmen.

But when the final four begins tonight, the competition will again include the Terps. Their 21-2 team faces Connecticut (21-3) at 7:30, the sixth semifinal appearance in the past seven years for Maryland.

Maryland's opponent is a relative outsider in what seems to be an Atlantic Coast Conference country club that includes Maryland, Duke and Wake Forest.

"This is the fourth straight year that Duke and Wake Forest have been in the final four, so they're familiar foes for us," said Maryland coach Missy Meharg, whose team has played Wake Forest twice and Duke once this season. "It'll be nice to see someone new and fresh."

Generally, this season has been more pleasurable for Maryland, partly because of the lack of expectations compared with last season. With eight starters returning from a previous final four team, the 2005 squad wore the proverbial bull's-eye for each game.

This season, Maryland was seen as more vulnerable because of the loss of four of the five players who earned all-tournament honors last year, and the need to lean on a bevy of newcomers. Of the nine fresh faces, five belong to starters.

But the Terps had All-Americans Paula Infante and Kathryn Masson returning, and had the top ranking all season until losing to current No. 1 Wake Forest two Sundays ago and falling to No. 2.

"Last year, we were the best and teams played us like that, so we felt the pressure," Meharg said. "This year, a lot of teams may have written us off as not being as good as last year."

It didn't take long to free opponents from that notion. The Terps began the season with a run of 12 wins before an early October loss to Duke, then ranked No. 5.

The difficulty of beating Maryland lies with its defense - third best in the country with a goals-against average of 0.74. Goaltender Masson leads the nation in save percentage at .813.

Infante, a two-time ACC Defensive Player of the Year, joins veterans Kristina Edmonds and Susie Rowe, along with freshman Brianna Davies, to form a strong backfield in front of Masson.

Twelve players have scored for the Terps, but the offense has been led by Nicole Muracco, who made first-team All-ACC and was Rookie of the Year in the conference after scoring a team-high 15 goals and 33 points overall.

After losing All-America forwards Jackie Ciconte and Tiffany Marsh, a lot of the offense comes on penalty corners, something Meharg hopes to change as the younger players develop timing.

"We're young in the offense. That's all we can point to on the offense," Meharg said. "In the future, I can see them developing into a powerful field-goal scoring unit."

christian.ewell@baltsun.com

Tonight's game

Matchup -- No. 2 Maryland vs. No. 7 Connecticut in NCAA Division I field hockey tournament semifinals

Site -- Winston-Salem, N.C.

Time -- 7:30

Outlook -- With its only losses coming against top-five teams Duke and Wake Forest, Maryland would seem to be the pick in this matchup. Midfielders Lizzy Peijs and Lauren Aird stand out for Connecticut, which is in its first Final Four since 1999.

Christian Ewell

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