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Maryland Field Hockey: The Year After

(Before I go on, has anyone noticed that this is becoming the home for local athletes' moms? First D.C. United defender Bobby Boswell's mom Susan posted a comment on yesterday's GUTS item. Then former Maryland all-American field hockey player Emily Beach's mom Carol posted a comment on Tuesday's Mike Lonergan/Maryland field hockey item. Any Eskandarian family members out there? Any Brunells? Larranaga children? Jon? Jay?)

(The key point of this post is that the defending national champion Maryland field hockey team starts its title defense tomorrow, at home, 11 a.m., against Richmond.)

So as I trekked around College Park this week, I thought I'd ask the various national championship teams how they felt about their national championships a year later. Which is why I wound up with the field hockey team during this week's NCAA tournament selection show, which was broadcast live on CSTV. Before the show started, I got to watch goalkeeper Christino Restivo present Timmy, a toy green turtle wearing sunglasses and a band-aid, to Kristina Foster, who then confessed her embarrassment about public speaking while accepting the award. (Timmy goes to the player who worked the hardest in practice that day. Last year the prize was a shiny little turtle named Bling.) I got to watch the end of a CSTV interview with Steve Spurrier while assistant coach Marybeth Freeman read out the list of field hockey automatic qualifiers and impatiently counted down the seconds and then shushed the team as the show finally began. I got to watch the highlights of Maryland's 1-0 loss to Wake Forest in the ACC tournament, while the players sort of grumbled quietly.

Finally the brackets were unveiled. Maryland was part of the last pod; the Terps were given the two seed in the College Park pod, none of which was particularly surprising. There was some cheering, and an interview from across the parking lot with Coach Missy Meharg in the Comcast Center, and some studying of the brackets, and then a debate as to how to proceed with the pot-luck dinner, which included three chickens, several salads, bread, pasta, apple crisp and brownies.

So I started asking players whether winning a national championship had changed their lives, whether it had made them celebrities

on campus, etc. I was sort of joking. They weren't.

"You can't even wrap your head around it when it happens," said Kendall Beveridge, who organized the pot-luck after teammates complained about the takeout chicken Caesar salads they had during last year's selection show. "We were all just like, Wait a second, we're the best team in country? Are we the best team in the country? We're the best team in the country!' I still can't even....I'm like yeah? Yeah, ok, that did happen."

"It's kind of like a surreal thing; you would have never imagined yourself to be a national champion," said Danielle Keeley, a sophomore who prepared one of the chickens, which came from her parents' farm in Cecil County. "When we have kids come to our games... they love, they strive, they want to be what we are.... It makes you say, 'Wow, I really did an amazing thing.'"

The players said they got some congratulations around campus, and articles in the student paper, and they were honored in several awards ceremonies throughout the year. But it wasn't like the Maryland women's basketball team, whose players now get stopped at restaurants and gas stations. Basketball hero Kristi Toliver told the Diamondback that she "can't walk five minutes to class without being greeted or asked for an autograph." It wasn't like that.

"Nope, not at all, no," said Emily Beach, who's now a field hockey volunteer assistant. "A week later, everyone's forgotten about it, except for you. But it was still exciting. We know how much we worked for it and what the payoff was for us personally, and that made it worth it, how proud my family was of me and all that stuff. I didn't care that ABC7 wasn't coming and knocking down my door. I was ok with that."

At some point Meharg stopped the festivities for some announcements. One of the announcements was that, since the team was playing at home this week, players would be allowed to go to class on Friday. The Terps screamed out "yes!" and pumped their fists. I'm not kidding. They explained that they'd missed a lot of class lately, and they didn't want to fall further behind. Then they started cleaning up; I waited to interview all-everything Paula Infante, the best player in the country last year who is also raising her five-year-old son, but she was wiping down the counters and tabletops in the team house as others wrapped up the leftovers.

Like the others, she talked about the strange and indescribable feelings they had gotten from being national champions. How, I wondered, could they get motivated to go through another NCAA tournament?

"Once you've reached that ultimate you only want to do it again," she said. "It's just a greater motivation, to show the other kids it's possible. You will never be able to describe it."

I asked whether she wished that effort would get more attention.

"It doesn't really matter," she said. "Sometimes you would be like, 'Oh, I hope we have the media cover us like other sports do,' but at the end it just changes the sport, you know? We are a low-profile sport, low-profile kids. And we go to class, and we do our work, and we don't expect any other benefits from teachers or managers or whatever. This is how we grow up with, and we don't expect any change."

All the players soon left. The coaching staff discussed how to get scouting tapes of Richmond, Maryland's opponent tomorrow. They talked about what they should work on in practice. I chatted with Meharg, who is close friends with Sasho Cirovski, the coach of the national champion men's soccer team. She talked about trying to instill "a way of living" in her players, a lifestyle of winning. She talked about how her players measure themselves against each other. She talked about how revenge games, and winning streaks, and title defenses were for the media, but that her staff and her players were more focused on competition. There may not be a lot of TV cameras or press conferences in field hockey land, but the rhetoric is the same as in football land. Personally, competition gives me heartburn, but I guess that's why I'm not a national champion. I asked Meharg whether she compares her team to the other athletic programs around campus.

"The competitiveness is a good one; cum petere, which means to seek together," she said. "I mean, that's the Latin. I mean, I love the words "to compete," and I have a problem as a mother when you hear these parents say, 'I don't want my kids in the competitive portion of the rec program, I want recreation.' I'm like, 'competition is learning.' You don't have to only play the best kids and not have equal playing time and all that; it's a message of seeking together and beating each other to get better. That's what I think we're all about."

So anyhow, that's the field hockey team, a year later. They play tomorrow morning.

By Dan Steinberg  |  November 10, 2006; 4:24 PM ET
Categories:  Terps  
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