by David Elfin

If you include Baltimore, we live in the nation’s biggest lacrosse hotbed. However, it has not been a good year for the area’s college programs. Johns Hopkins’ men missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 42 years. Georgetown, Navy and 2011 champion Virginia also didn’t qualify. Maryland was crushed at home in the first round. Defending champion Loyola went out quickly, too. On the women’s side, the Hoyas were upset by the Cavaliers, a finalist in 2004, 2005 and 2007, who fell in the quarterfinals. Loyola and Navy won a game each.

Then there are the ever-reliable Maryland women. This is the fifth straight spring in which the Terps have reached the Final Four under coach Cathy Reese, herself a mainstay on Maryland teams that won the national championship each year from 1995-98.

However, there is something different about these 21-0 Terps, who are top-seeded and top-ranked heading into tomorrow’s national semifinal against fourth-seeded Syracuse (18-3) as they seek just Maryland’s second national title since 2001, the season that the program concluded an incredible seven-year stay at the top.

“I said to this group in February, ‘We have something really special,’ “ recalled Reese, whose team pounded the Orange 19-11 on the road on Feb. 17. “It’s hard to kind of put your finger on it. This team has really enjoyed this journey so far. They’re having fun playing. They’re working hard. They’re supporting each other on and off the field.”

That’s especially true of Maryland’s seniors, who won the championship as freshmen but lost by a goal to Northwestern as sophomore and to the Wildcats by two goals in last year’s semis.

“Freshman year, you’re kind of just going through it, but as a senior, you realize it’s your last time and you want to do everything possible to be prepared,” said senior midfielder Katie Schwarzmann, the only current senior who started on the 2010 national champions.

Maryland hasn’t had a letdown on this ride, nearly doubling its opponents’ goals, 319-170. Its 14-13 victory over North Carolina – which meets two-time defending champion Northwestern in tomorrow’s other semifinal at Villanova – was the only close shave of the program’s fifth perfect regular season with Reese in uniform or on the sideline in command or as an assistant. Three of the previous four unbeaten years ended with the Terps hoisting the trophy.

Freshman midfielder Taylor Cummings, one of eight Terps with at least 22 goals, is the ACC’s Rookie of the Year and a first-team All-American as is National Defender of the Year Iliana Sanchez. Senior goalie Casey Howard has come up big as a first-year starter, having not allowed more than nine shots to beat her in any of the seven games since the escape of the Tar Heels.

However, captain Schwarzmann and classmate Alex Aust are Maryland’s driving forces. Schwarzmann, last year’s Teewaaraton (Player of the Year) winner when she had 94 points, is a finalist this year with 78 points as Aust, also a Teewaaraton finalist, has shouldered more of the scoring load.

“The senior class has been on this high level every year, but we’ve been on both ends of the stick and not wanting that result again is definitely a driving factor for us,” said Bullis graduate Aust, who has evolved from a bit player as a freshman into one of the nation’s feared attackers with 67 goals and 52 assists. “Going into the season, I didn’t want to leave any stone unturned because it was my senior year. Cathy and [2010 standout Caitlin McFadden, now a first-year assistant] give me so much confidence to be able to really elevate my game.”

Aust’s 119 points this season are the most ever by a Terp other than the program’s all-time leading scorer, Jen Adams. With four more assists, she’ll pass Kelly Amonte – now Northwestern’s coach — and move into second on Maryland’s career list. Schwarzmann needs just four points to rank third behind Adams and Amonte among the career scoring leaders. Schwarzmann and Aust, who’ll likely finish fifth all-time, are the only classmates in the top 10, but Adams (four) and Amonte (two) won more titles as did Reese (four).

“We’ve got strong personalities in our senior class,” said Reese, whose eight seniors are twice as many as she had in 2012. “They’ve lost a couple so they’ve got some extra motivation to make their last year here at Maryland, the best one yet. They’re leading the way. We’ve had a fantastic season and that’s a true credit to them.”

For a university which won a national championship during all but four school years dating to 1993 but is without one in 2013, it’s up to the women’s lacrosse team to extend the current streak to four in a row.

David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin


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