Once Riley Donnelly stopped the penalty corner cross at the top of the circle Nov. 2 against Ohio State, she had a simple message for Taylor Mason: “Do it.”
It wasn’t the usual corner routine. But leading by six goals in the Big Ten tournament semifinals, the freshmen midfielders had the opportunity to lead Maryland field hockey’s attack. They took advantage.
Mason heeded Donnelly’s advice, taking a shot that deflected high into the net for the Terps’ eighth goal in a dominant 9-1 win over the Buckeyes.
Mason threw her arms in the air in elation, and her childhood teammate, Donnelly, draped her arm around her shoulder. Both players were beaming after combining for Mason’s first college goal and Donnelly’s first assist.
As their freshmen seasons wound down in College Park, Mason and Donnelly played key parts in Maryland’s run to the national championship game, building on an already rich connection years in the making since competing on the same club teams throughout their youth.
“It was just really fun to be able to go through the whole process together,” Donnelly said. “Just [learning] how to hold the stick until now.”
Forming a bond
Five freshmen joined Maryland this season, some hailing from as far as the Netherlands.
Donnelly and Mason, though, hail from Doylestown, Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia suburb where their love of the sport — and bond with each other — began.
It was more a matter of when, not if, they would play field hockey. Donnelly’s mother played at Lehigh, and Mason’s mother competed at Boston University. So when they reached second grade, they both started to learn the game their mothers excelled at.
They landed on the same club team in fifth grade, sparking their friendship. But a week together at Newfound Lake in New Hampshire five years ago drew Donnelly and Mason further together, even though the families had scheduled the trip independent of each other.
The two families spent the whole trip together. Donnelly’s grandfather taught Mason and her sister how to waterski. They rented paddleboards and visited a shallow part of the lake, which they called The Cove, to throw frisbees and hang out.
“They started becoming closer,” Mindy Donnelly, Riley’s mother, said. “They had a really good time that summer.”
As the duo’s friendship strengthened, so too did their games. They led their club team, FSC, to its second national indoor tournament championship in history in 2016. The next year, they won it again. They played in the National Futures Championship throughout high school, winning the competition their final three seasons.
“Both Taylor and Riley are natural athletes,” FSC director Michelle Finegan said, who coached each player for at least seven years. “They’re both very competitive and very driven. So it was apparent very young that they were very good, very talented.”
But for all the shared success on club teams, Donnelly and Mason were pitted against each other during the high school season.
Their families, who sat together during club tournaments, were on opposite sides of the field for matchups between Central Bucks East and Central Bucks West high schools — “There was no interaction until the end of the game,” Mason’s father, Jonathan, said.
The same was true for Donnelly and Mason. The nearly inseparable friends wouldn’t even say ‘hi’ before the high-stakes games.
“It’s probably is one of the biggest rivalries anywhere,” Mindy Donnelly said.
Donnelly went to East, where her mother was an assistant field hockey coach and her father was a football coach. Mason went to West, where her mother was also an assistant field hockey coach.
Before games between the foes, the opposing teams would sneak onto the other’s campus, painting East or West onto a large rock in front of the school. And the games usually carried significant weight toward deciding the winner of the conference, with results going back and forth throughout Donnelly and Mason’s careers.
“There was always hard feelings sometimes,” Donnelly said, “but then by the end of the weekend, we were all friends again on the same team.”
And while they admitted it wasn’t always fun having to go from friends to foes, it helped them improve their game.
“We would always play in the position that marked one another, so we would always go head-to-head,” Mason said. “It was just good for both of us. … We would always just push each other to go hard.”
That extra motivation resulted in very successful high school careers for both Donnelly and Mason.
Donnelly was named a First Team All-American by the NFHCA and Max Field Hockey in her senior year and led Central Bucks East every season in scoring. Mason was named a Third Team All-American and ended her time at Central Bucks West with 75 goals and 33 assists.
“Even when they were rivals,” Jonathan Mason said, “they were still good friends.”
At a recruiting camp in West Chester, Pennsylvania, the summer after eighth grade, Donnelly met Maryland coach Missy Meharg for the first time.
Maryland was the first school Donnelly visited. She quickly knew it was the place for her.
“Riley always would be excited looking at other schools and start to think about them seriously, but then, when the dust would settle, she would say, ‘Can I go visit Maryland again?’” Mindy Donnelly said. “That was always on the top of her list.”
Mason’s introduction to Maryland was at a team camp in College Park with her teammates from Central Bucks West at the end of her freshman year.
“It was at that point she just fell in love with the school,” Debi Mason, her mother, said.
Just like Donnelly, no matter what schools Mason visited, she would always circle back to Maryland.
In the fall of 2015, during her sophomore year, Donnelly verbally committed to Maryland, the first of the two to commit.
After committing, Donnelly frequently asked Mason which schools she was considering. The two talked about the possibility of playing together in college, so Donnelly was ecstatic to hear Maryland was one of Mason’s top choices.
“She wasn’t really supposed to tell anybody, but of course she told me,” Donnelly said. “I was trying to convince her and stuff, so when she decided, I was really excited.”
Making an Impact
Donnelly and Mason’s relationship helped ease their transition into college.
The two were assigned as roommates along with the other freshmen and junior transfer Nike Lorenz. On move-in day, the Donnelly and Mason families went together to get scooters and settle into College Park.
“It’s definitely really nice not having to play against each other anymore,” Donnelly said.
Donnelly quickly emerged as a starter for the Terps and ended the season with the second-most minutes on the team. Mason took more time to break out for the team, but impressed Meharg with her work ethic in practice and provided solid minutes off the bench toward the end of the season. All the while, the two friends helped each other continue to improve.
“We’re always telling each other what we can work on,” Mason said. “Whenever she has a good game, I’ll tell her that she’s had such a great game and vice versa. So, it’s just really nice to have somebody that I’ve consistently been super close with … so we can just tell each other how it is.”
And in the 45th minute against Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament semifinals, Donnelly felt comfortable doing just that. Her urge for Mason to shoot led to her teammates’ first college goal, and Donnelly’s first assist.
They remained key players for Meharg throughout the NCAA tournament run, which ended with a 2-0 defeat to No. 1 North Carolina in the national championship Nov. 18.
“They came in mentally and physically ready to make an impact for Maryland field hockey,” Meharg said. “They have reached that goal and they will continue to soar.”
The duo, who forged a love for the sport growing up together and have collected ample honors along the way, have three more years to chase a college title together. And they have plenty of opportunities to combine on goals like the one against the Buckeyes.
“[It] was special,” Mindy Donnelly said. “That was exciting that they did that together.”