The Maryland field hockey team entered 2017 on a three-year final four drought, and for most of the season, it seemed the streak would stretch to four. With five freshmen starters, the Terps opened the year 1-2 and didn’t win a Big Ten trophy for the first time since joining the conference.
As the team entered the NCAA tournament unranked, not even the players anticipated ending up in the national championship game.
But ever since losing the title game to UConn, Maryland has been determined to make it back. At the start of this season, the team captains met and declared that their goal was not just to return to Louisville, but to leave as national champions.
This weekend, after sneaking past the Huskies in the quarterfinals on Sunday, the No. 2-seed Terps get a chance to finish the job and show what they learned from last year’s near-miss.
“We all were kind of a bit nervous and stuff because that was our first final four,” forward Linnea Gonzales said. “We kind of surprised ourselves and didn’t really know we could get that far. … This year we have it in us, and we know where we want to be and how far we can go.”
Not only is the final four in a familiar setting for the Terps, their first opponent is a familiar one, too. Maryland will face No. 3-seed Princeton on Friday, a team it beat, 5-4, on the road in September.
In that game, Maryland tallied the opening goal but then broke down and allowed four consecutive Tigers scores. Terps forward Bibi Donraadt capped a second-half comeback by scoring with 15 seconds left, setting the stage for a double-overtime win.
Maryland knows it’ll need to have a better start in its rematch with Princeton, but coach Missy Meharg’s squad also believes it has improved since that rocky game. Forward Julie Duncan said the struggles against the Tigers motivated the Terps to become a better team.
“We want to keep the ball moving,” Meharg said. “We're going to have to open strong and just be structurally dominant."
Last season, Maryland’s semifinal opponent was Michigan, a team that had beaten the Terps earlier in the year. But this year, the Terps have been one of the NCAA’s top teams since August.
They opened the campaign 13-0, lost just two games all year, and won both the Big Ten regular-season and conference championship.
And when they return to Louisville for their second consecutive final four, they’ll look to accomplish their real goal and avenge last year’s loss in a game they weren’t even expecting to be in.
“It triggers last year and what we went through together...That fires us up so much more that we’re back in the same place and position,” Gonzales said. “It was just very hard because we were all tired and put it all out there, and I don’t think we all played to our potential that game.”