The celebration when the final whistle blew was nothing flashy, just smiles and hugs among teammates. After all, it’s become expected of the Maryland men’s soccer team to win conference tournament championships.
The Terps entered the Big Ten Tournament title game against Wisconsin on Sunday having won their past four conference tournaments – two in the Big Ten and two in the ACC.
Maryland again proved why it’s been one of the strongest college soccer programs and the country’s top-ranked team for almost two months. Behind goals from forwards DJ Reeves and Sebastian Elney, the No. 1-seed Terps defeated the No. 3-seed Badgers, 2-1, in Westfield Indiana, for its fifth consecutive conference tournament title.
“We showed the championship-fiber once again,” coach Sasho Cirovski said. “With all the success we’ve had, I’m still lost at words for the fifth conference championship in five years. When you’re ranked highly you get everybody’s best shot. For us to continue to do what we’re doing is remarkable.”
Cirovski was upset with his team’s intensity in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals against Michigan, but the Terps (18-0-2) fixed that problem in a 2-1 semifinals win over No. 4-seed Michigan State on Friday. They carried that momentum into Sunday, scoring 1 minute 20 seconds into the match.
Defender Suli Dainkeh sent a cross down the field Reeves. The sophomore, making his first career start, sprinted past Wisconsin defender Matej Radonic, dribbled past the diving goalkeeper and struck the ball into the back of the net, prompting smiles to form on almost all of the Terps players. Elney said that set the Terps’ fast tempo for the rest of the match.
But Wisconsin (11-4-4) tied the contest in the 12th minute. Maryland has struggled to defend counter attacks this season, and those issues resurfaced on the Badgers’ goal.
As the Terps scurried back on defense, Badgers midfielder Christopher Mueller crossed the ball to forward Tom Barlow, who sprinted past Dainkeh and tapped the ball into the goal.
After a five-game shutout streak, the Terps have allowed 12 goals in their past eight matches. Maryland, though, has scored after 16 of the 18 goals it surrendered entering Sunday, and it regained the lead in the 43rd minute.
Elney headed midfielder Jorge Calix’s corner kick into the bottom-left corner of the net for his third goal of the season. Elney’s heading ability was one of the reasons he led the Terps with seven goals last year, and Sunday marked his second goal of the season off a header.
The Terps had their quickest turnaround of the season after playing Friday, so defender Alex Croganle said the contributions from Maryland’s reserves, such as Elney and Calix, were crucial.
“Wisconsin played an overtime game [Friday], so we knew that they would be a little more fatigued than us,” Crognale said. “Being able to get guys off the bench who are just as productive as the starters is huge for us.”
Wisconsin spread the field and found openings in Maryland’s defense multiple times in the second half, causing goalkeeper Cody Niedermeier, who made seven saves, to yell at his teammates in frustration. Still, the Terps were able to keep the Badgers off the scoreboard and remain undefeated entering the NCAA tournament.
“We knew between the long throw-ins and the counter attacks that we were going to be called upon to make some saves,” Cirovski said. “Cody Niedermeier was spectacular today.”
When the Terps beat the Badgers on Oct. 14, they captured at least a share of the Big Ten regular season title. After another win over the Badgers, they jumped up and down with a different trophy.
Still, the celebration Sunday only lasted for about 15 minutes.
Maryland has its eyes set on winning a national championship.
“It’s a great feeling wearing the hat and the shirt,” Elney said. “But we’re so ready [for the NCAA Tournament].”