By the time Denver’s defenders reacted, Maryland women’s lacrosse attacker Caroline Steele had dashed in front of the crease and received a feed from attacker Kali Hartshorn. One pump fake later, putting the three collapsing defenders and goalkeeper Amelia Cole off balance, Steele had fired the ball into the back of the net.
In a season that has been sidetracked at times by injury, the senior entered Saturday’s NCAA tournament quarterfinal matchup against the Pioneers with 194 career goals. And early in the second half of a blowout — a scoreline discrepancy she was very much a catalyst of — Steele had reached 200 career tallies, her short-range strike securing the milestone.
Steele put away seven goals in Maryland’s win, proving to be a crucial part of the Terps’ path to an 11th straight final four appearance. Saturday night’s performance was another chapter in a prolific Maryland career, delivering her best when the Terps need it most.
“Steele is absolutely awesome,” attacker Brindi Griffin said. “Not a lot of people can do what she does.”
After suffering a knee injury in the first month of the season, it looked as if Steele would be limited to a smaller role during her final campaign in College Park. However, she has since overcome the setbacks and is in a fine vein of form of late.
Her eight-point performance against Denver flashed the entirety of her skill set. She missed only one of her eight shots, tied a career-high with five ground balls and provided a pretty assist for Griffin to cap off a dominant first half.
Although she contributed in multiple facets of the game, arguably her most noticeable impact came from her hustle and willingness to fight for balls under pressure. With 3:27 remaining in the first half, Steele fought off a Denver defender, scooped a ground ball in front of the cage and placed the ball past the helpless goalkeeper.
“It helps getting the momentum on our side,” Griffin said. “You just wanna go out and hustle with her.”
Her play seemed to have an impact on the rest of the team. The Terps torched the nation’s best scoring defense entering the game, working the ball around and finding clear looks against a tired-looking Denver unit. And 10 of the Maryland goals came off assists, with off-ball movement leading to results.
“When we started off the season, we would make the first pass,” coach Cathy Reese said. “Now, as we’re rounding things out, we’re just way smarter on offense.”
It showed. The Terps’ lead swelled to 11 at one point, and Reese was able to finish the game with an all-senior lineup for their farewell to College Park. The senior class has never lost a game at home.
“To win our last game at home, to never lose here, it speaks to our team and our coaches, the senior class,” Steele said. “We’ve just all worked so hard to get here.”
The stakes get higher from here. Maryland will meet Northwestern in the final four, the only team to dent its unbeaten record this year. With Steele firing on all cylinders, the Terps will look to redeem their Big Ten championship game loss to the Wildcats.
And Steele has a history of scoring in big games — be it Saturday’s seven-goal display, an overtime winner over North Carolina in February or six goals in the 2017 national championship game — Maryland may lean on her output once more.
“As long as we’re winning, I’m happy,” Steele said. “And I don’t want to be anywhere else.”