After defender Jlon Flippens scored an overtime penalty kick to defeat George Mason on Sept. 3, she sprinted toward the Maryland women's soccer team's bench with her teammates just behind, raised her hand and waved, as if to say "goodbye."
The Terps advanced to 5-0-1 with the victory, but they won only two of their remaining 12 matches and ended their season with a 564-minute scoreless streak.
Injuries to key players and inconsistent performances contributed to Maryland's tumble through the second half of the schedule. Still, the Terps showed improvement just one year after finishing 3-15-1 in coach Ray Leone's first season in charge.
"We've improved, just in our competitiveness, against the teams we played last year," Leone said. "We're totally different, even with all the injuries, with how we actually competed against these top-level teams … It's not even the score, it's how you're playing."
The Terps (7-8-3, 1-8-2 Big Ten) started strong behind the play of forwards Chelsea Jackson and Mikayla Dayes. The pair opened the season with three goals apiece through the first five games.
However, Dayes and Jackson soon suffered season-ending ACL injuries. Dayes' came on Aug. 31 against Richmond, while Jackson's occurred three games later against Rutgers on Sept. 17.
While these injuries hindered the Terps' play, they also provided valuable experience for a large group of first-year players from Leone's 25th-ranked recruiting class. Flippens said the newcomers matured immensely during the season.
"Ray just reminds us to trust the process," freshman midfielder Hope Lewandoski said. "It's not going to happen overnight. This year, this freshman class has brought a new energy to the group, and we've been able to jump forward a little bit."
Dayes is one of those freshmen, as is her twin, defender Malikae Dayes, who played in only four matches due to an unspecified injury. The sisters have played for the Canadian youth national team, while forward Alyssa Poarch, who missed the season with a torn ACL suffered in high school, has experience with the United States youth setup.
They made up part of the class that has Leone feeling confident moving forward.
"That top-25 recruiting class, half of them didn't even play," Leone said. "The twins have been out the whole season. Poarch didn't play at all. These were all the national team players. Those were the ones. But I'm really pleased with how everybody did improve, the young players."
Eleven freshmen debuted for the Terps this season, and two — Lewandoski and defender Sydney Staier — played more than 1,400 minutes. Only redshirt senior midfielder Hope Gouterman was on the field more often.
Leone started up to six freshmen in some instances during the season. With the injuries and Leone's preference to have versatile players, most played more than one position. Lewandoski, for instance, played along the backline and as a forward along with her natural role as a midfielder.
The second-year coach said that while players were forced out of their comfort zones, the variety of situations he put his team in were "experiences that we at least had together." Leone and Gouterman believe those experiences have Maryland primed for even more growth in the coming years.
"Looking at the future, the opportunities can only go up from here," Gouterman said. "This younger program has been an essential part of the future so we're leaving it in good hands."