Maryland prepares for title defense

No point in bringing up the "s" word to Maryland women's lacrosse coach Cathy Reese. The Terrapins, she said, never paid the slightest attention to it anyway.

If you want to talk about the program's 28 consecutive victories -- a "streak" that ended last week -- then go ahead. However, the Terps themselves are really only interested in securing four more victories this month. If they do that, they'll win the school's 11th national championship in women's lacrosse.

Maryland is, as expected, the No. 1 seed for the 16-team NCAA tournament, the bracket for which was released Sunday. A double-overtime 9-8 loss at Dartmouth on May 1 really didn't affect anything NCAA-wise. All it did was put an end to the stre ...

Oh, never mind.

"It was not once mentioned in our locker room or team meetings," Reese said. "We've got a group of athletes that just want to be the best they can be. We just want to learn from every game."

Most participants in any kind of successful athletic streak tend to be reticent to talk about it while it's going on. But Reese doesn't even want to discuss it now that it's over. You can see why: The focus from here on out is all on the NCAA tournament.

Besides, when Reese was playing at Maryland in the 1990s, she was part of a 50-game streak. While she would be the first to say college lacrosse has grown substantially in the 13 years since she was a senior in 1998, that run of 50 straight does put 28 in a row into a different perspective.

And now, the coach Reese played for at Maryland will be at the helm of the Terps' NCAA first-round opponent, Navy. Cindy Timchal, who was 260-45 at Maryland, left the Terps after the 2006 season to start Navy's women's lacrosse program. That's when Reese became Maryland's head coach, and she and the Terps will meet Navy (15-5) on Saturday at College Park, Md.

Navy, the Patriot League champion, got its NCAA tournament bid by winning a play-in game Saturday against Northeast Conference champion Quinnipiac. Timchal now faces the giant she built, a Maryland team that is 18-1 this season.

And not to lessen anything at all about Dartmouth's victory over Maryland -- the Big Green are one of the eight unseeded teams in the NCAA field -- but the circumstances weren't optimal for the Terps in that meeting, which started this most important month of the season.

The Terps already had won the ACC tournament title on April 24. So their last two games before the NCAA tournament, at Georgetown on April 28 and at Dartmouth three days later, actually seemed understandably ripe for an upset.

That defeat may actually be put to good use by a veteran Maryland team that is the defending NCAA champion. The levelheaded Terps didn't need a bitter spoonful of humility syrup before tackling the NCAA bracket. Still, they can use the loss as additional motivation.

Maryland had not previously lost since April 2010 to North Carolina. Included in those 28 consecutive victories was a 13-11 NCAA title-game triumph last May over Northwestern, a program that had emerged in 2005 to win the first of five consecutive national championships.

The Wildcats did that behind the coaching leadership of former Maryland player Kelly Amonte Hiller, a 1996 graduate. So last year's national championship game pitted two former very successful Terp players-turned-head coaches.

Amonte Hiller was the Division I national player of the year as a junior and senior, which started Maryland's run of seven NCAA titles in a row from 1995-2001. Reese, two years behind Amonte Hiller, won four NCAA titles as a player and was the NCAA tournament's most valuable player as a senior.

Amonte Hiller has been head coach at Northwestern since taking over the club team there in 2001 prior to the Wildcats' return to varsity status the following year. Then, in Amonte Hiller's fifth season in Evanston, Ill., Northwestern won its first NCAA title.

Meanwhile, Reese served as Timchal's assistant coach at Maryland for five years after graduating, then took over as head coach at Denver for three seasons. Elevating that program and helping the expansion of the sport away from the East Coast is a point of pride for Reese.

"Denver was great; it's so exciting to watch the growth of lacrosse at both the playing level and with the fans," Reese said. "It's fun to see it, and it's going to continue to grow."

When Timchal left for Navy, Reese returned to take the reins at her alma mater. And the Terps ended an eight-year title "drought" by winning the national championship last year.

"It was so exciting for me to have the opportunity to have the chance to come back to the school where I grew up," Reese said. "I love the atmosphere here. We came off a great season last year, and I'm so proud of the kids winning the ACC championship already this year."

But a bigger goal awaits, which is always the case for this program. With Maryland as the No. 1 seed and Northwestern No. 2, nobody will be surprised to see those teams meet again for the NCAA title May 29 in Stony Brook, N.Y. Not that either one is even thinking about that right now.

"Every team in the tournament is talented," Reese said. "The seedings don't really mean anything other than you get to host for the first round."

Sarah Mollison, a senior attacker from Australia who leads the Terps in points with 44 goals and 40 assists, said the winning streak is something that the players will be proud of in retrospect. But now it's all about trying to repeat as national champions.

"We're pretty confident in each other," Mollison said. "If we're ready to play a full 60 minutes of lacrosse, the result should take care of itself. Which is what has happened for the majority of the season."

Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

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