Now in her 30th season leading the Maryland field hockey team, coach Missy Meharg has built a program that annually competes for national championships. Heading into the campaign, the Terps had made the NCAA tournament in all but two seasons under her watch.
But when Maryland's record sat at 6-5 before its Oct. 6 matchup with Michigan State, the veteran coach wondered whether her team would earn a bid. Freshman midfielder Kyler Greenwalt said that after some of Maryland's early losses "a lot of people were saying they were kind of scared."
The Terps responded with a seven-game winning streak heading into the Big Ten tournament. Despite a semifinals loss to Penn State in that competition, Maryland's late run earned an NCAA tournament spot.
The unseeded Terps will face an experienced Wake Forest team Saturday in Durham, North Carolina.
"This was the closest, when we sat at 6-5 or 7-5," Meharg said. "I was really wondering if we would be in this position."
Meharg urges other Big Ten schools to schedule as many ACC teams as they can each season, but Maryland is the lone member of the conference that faced four ACC foes. The Demon Deacons, meanwhile, were one of two ACC squads to face five Big Ten opponents.
Wake Forest topped two of its Big Ten adversaries — Ohio State and Iowa — and played 12 ranked teams. Maryland comparably won a pair of contests against ACC squads, tallying a 1-0 victory against then-No. 9 Louisville and a 5-4 triumph against then-No. 3 Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Meharg said the Demon Deacons' style of play resembles Northwestern more so than other ACC teams. The Terps lost to the Wildcats, 3-2, on Sept. 24.
The matchup could challenge Maryland's defense, which enters the game allowing fewer than two goals per contest. The Demon Deacons will likely move around their midfielders in an attempt to force Maryland out of its familiar zone, Meharg said. Their forwards play closer to the midfield at times, encouraging the Terps to play a man-to-man style.
"We haven't seen that from a lot of other teams," Greenwalt said.
Meharg said Wake Forest creates different game plans for each opponent. As a result, it'll likely prepare for Maryland's aggressive press and attempt to eliminate midfielder Lein Holsboer, who boasts a team-leading 11 scores, and forward Linnea Gonzales from the Terps offense.
Regardless, Maryland plans to use its youth to its advantage. Five of Maryland's seven freshmen have received regular playing time but haven't played in an NCAA tournament contest. Until recently, some were unsure whether they would have the opportunity to do so.
"I think about them the same way I did on Aug. 8 when we first got together," Meharg said. "There's a lot of unfamiliar eyes. We're going to use that freshness to our advantage. They're very inspired. They're motivated."