April 27, 2011

Terps Win Even When Stars Don't Align

by Justin Feil | LaxMagazine.com

Katie Gallagher missed most of Maryland's 2010 season after a flare-up of Crohn's disease, but has returned as a leader of the Terps' underrated defense. She was named All-ACC last week.

© Maryland Athletic Media Relations

Staring at its first halftime deficit in 380 days, the Maryland women's lacrosse team didn't panic.

The Terrapins had been through worse while compiling the nation's longest winning streak, which stretched to 27 games when they rebounded from the 6-3 halftime deficit for a 12-7 win over North Carolina to claim their third straight ACC tournament championship Sunday. Despite losing big pieces of their team during the streak, they haven't been slowed.

Said Maryland head coach Cathy Reese: "I've seen our team come together and step up to do what's necessary to win."

Top-ranked Maryland (17-0) has won its last six games in the streak without Lacrosse Magazine Preseason Player of the Year and last year's leading scorer Karri Ellen Johnson, who was lost to a concussion almost a month ago in a win over Towson on March 29. They won the first 10 games in the streak last year, including the national championship, without defender Katie Gallagher, who has garnered All-ACC honors this year in her return from Crohn's disease. Tewaaraton Watch List midfielder Laura Merrifield has missed four games this year with shingles, but that hasn't stopped the winning streak.

"We have great players that can step up," said Maryland goalie Brittany Dipper. "And we have such amazing depth, if we lose someone, we have someone that can fill their shoes."

So a three-goal halftime deficit didn't seem like much to the Terrapins, who didn't even realize at the time that it had been more than a year since North Carolina led them 6-4 at halftime on the way to Maryland's last loss.

"I don't remember feeling like that," Gallagher said. "I had all the confidence in the world. There was no way we were going to lose. None of us were going to let that happen."

After Becky Lynch gave North Carolina a 7-4 lead with 26:49 left in the second half Sunday, it was all Maryland. They scored the final eight goals of the game to win convincingly.

"We finished our shots," Reese said. "We moved a little better off the ball for each other. We created scoring opportunities that put us in the best position to finish shots. I thought in the first half, we rushed a little too much.

"Our defense definitely tightened up. We came away with more loose balls. We gave up one opportunity and were able to come up with the ball. They played with more energy, more poise in the second half."

The win meant a little more to Gallagher, who had three caused turnovers and three ground balls in the ACC title game. She was on the sidelines last year for the final 21 games. After the second game of the season, she had a flare-up from Crohn's disease, and the resulting costochondritis, an inflammation inside the chest, forced her to take a medical redshirt year in her senior season. She was there for the ACC title game and the national crown, but as an assistant coach and cheerleader.

"Last year, it was hard to sit on the sidelines," Gallagher said. "I felt like I was on the field. I was able to practice with the girls at the end. This year meant so much. I can't even tell you how ecstatic I was after we won. I don't even have a voice left."

As tough as it was to miss last year's exciting finish, Gallagher was still thrilled that Maryland had the players who could fill in for her and win a title. It would have felt worse if she hadn't been able to play and Maryland had lost the championship.

"That would have killed me," Gallagher said. "I felt like I was on the field. Being on the sidelines, you have a different perspective on the game. I was just as happy for my girls, especially my class."

Her Crohn's now under control thanks to Humira, a medication originally intended to treat rheumatoid arthritis, Gallagher has been able to focus on lacrosse.

"One thing I've learned this year is to be more of a leader," Gallagher said. "I try to use positivity in a good way. The past four years I haven't really had a voice. I've been a leader by example."

Karri Ellen Johnson, pictured here in a March 22 game at Stony Brook, has missed the last month of the season after suffering a concussion March 29 against Towson. "You have to wait this out, as it was a concussion," head coach Cathy Reese said. "When she's cleared and physically ready to go, she'll start again. It's not like a sprained ankle when you know you're out two weeks."

© Greg Shemitz

Gallagher's return has helped to anchor a defense that gets overshadowed by Maryland's high scoring offense, even though the Terrapins' scoring defense is ranked second while the scoring offense is ranked third. Combined, they produce the nation's top scoring margin.

"She's a fantastic leader," Dipper said. "Having her back there to communicate and keep everyone positive helps so much. She was picking everyone up when we were down. She's such an amazing defender, and she keeps people out of the crease."

Gallagher has made Dipper's job easier in goal, though Dipper doesn't need much help. She's fifth in the country in save percentage and first in goals against average, a number that has gone down steadily through each of her three years.

"She has confidence back there as a goalie, which isn't easy in college lacrosse," Reese said. "To have the success in games that she's had, she's in a place to be a leader and director for us."

North Carolina had to have a feeling of déjà vu in the second half Sunday. They had seen Dipper thwart their attack in the first half of last year's final. She made several point-blank saves on her way to a career-best 12 saves while allowing just one goal in the first half. She allowed only Lynch's goal in the second half Sunday.

"I just had more open looks," Dipper said. "I felt like in the first half, there was a lot of cramming in the 8-meter. I was getting cleaner looks in the second half. My defense was giving me shots I could stop. I wanted to step up and play hard for my team."

Dipper and Gallagher are among the most experienced defensive players in the country. Both hail from New Jersey, neither from scholastic programs known for turning out particularly high-end players, but they have developed into standouts at Maryland and are two huge reasons it's tough to score on the Terrapins.

"Our offense gets credit for scoring, but defense has been huge," Reese said. "To hold North Carolina to seven goals in the ACC championship is great."

The defense passed one of its bigger tests of the year in the rain when Boston College tried to wear it down with a possession game. For three quarters of the game, Boston College had the ball, but only managed five goals in Maryland's 8-5 win.

"We played a lot of defense that game," Reese said. "Boston College chose to hold the ball. Our defense has been outstanding this year. It's a crucial part of our success."

After two different tests in the ACC tournament, the Terrapins are ready for anything that can be thrown their way in the final two regular season games and the NCAA tournament. They play at Georgetown on Thursday before traveling to Dartmouth on Sunday. The ACC title was another confirmation that they can win without Johnson, who is still day-to-day as she tries to pass post-concussion tests.

"You have to wait this out, as it was a concussion," Reese said. "When she's cleared and physically ready to go, she'll start again. It's not like a sprained ankle when you know you're out two weeks. Coming off this weekend, we saw our senior leadership step up."

The Terrapins are marching on without Johnson, though her return would bolster not just the offense, but the draw controls. Since she left, North Carolina in their regular season meeting and Princeton have won more draw controls against Maryland.

"It'll be great to get her back, taking the draws again," Dipper said. "Having her on the field is a positive thing. It's not just her talent, but her spirit and energy. It'll be an even better part of our team to have back."

And if Johnson is out the remainder of the year, the Terrapins think that they can still win and repeat as national champions.

"With the depth on our team, I think we can," Dipper said. "Whether she's on the field or not, I think we have the talent on our team to do it."

Maryland proved it Sunday with a 27th straight win to capture another ACC championship.

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