Coach Cathy Reese has made it clear that games in February and early March are about more than wins and losses. They are a part of a season-long process to ready No. 11 Maryland women’s lacrosse for its games in May

But in just the second game of the season, when 20 Syracuse shots went past reigning Goalkeeper of the Year Emily Sterling and into the back of the cage, Reese’s utter displeasure was clear.

“Defensively, we didn’t execute our game plan. We didn’t help each other out. We didn’t slide when we needed to,” Reese said. “[It’s] tough for [Sterling] to make saves when we’re not altering their shots at all.”

Such performances are an oddity for Maryland. Under Reese and assistant coach Lauri Kenis, the Terps have had some of the best defenses in the history of the sport. As a result, Maryland, which had the second best scoring defense in the country last year,  has become lauded as ‘Defender U.’

That title made its way onto the cover of USA Lacrosse Magazine’s season preview — defenders Abby Bosco, Marge Donovan and Kennedy Major shared the cover alongside Sterling.

But at that point, Bosco, Donovan and Major had yet to share the field with one another.

That lack of experience playing alongside each other proved costly. It became evident early that the Terps’ defense, with many new faces, needed time to get in sync.

[No. 11 Maryland women’s lacrosse eases past William & Mary, 22-4]

Bosco, a graduate student, was the only one of the three to play for Maryland last year, where she won Big Ten Defender of the Year. Donovan, also a graduate student, transferred to Maryland from Princeton, where she was a second team All-American. 

Major, a redshirt freshman, was the top-ranked defender in the 2021 recruiting class but didn’t play last season due to injury. Similarly, Clancy Rheude, who won America East Co-Defensive Player of the Year at Albany in 2021, transferred to Maryland but missed the season due to injury.

“This season in particular, yes, we want to win games, but we have so much growing to do as a unit, and defensively, I have a lot of new faces … with Kennedy Major and Clancy [Rheude] and Marge Donovan back there,” Reese said.

Growth has been apparent in recent performances — if they’re not in mid-season form yet, they’re surely heading in the right direction.

In their last three games, the Terps have allowed 20 goals — the same amount they allowed in that disastrous outing against Syracuse three weeks ago.

The first of those three was an 8-7 loss to now-No. 8 James Madison. In the game before, a 14-13 win over now-No. 10 Florida, Reese said she saw some good defensive sequences, but also had some plays that fell apart.

There weren’t as many of the latter in the loss to James Madison. The Terps made the Dukes work for every shot, and in some cases, end possessions without a shot. The Terps’ defense forced two James Madison shot clock violations, showing their discipline after forcing zero in their first four games.

[Kori Edmondson flashed her potential in stellar outing for Maryland women’s lacrosse]

“I’m really, really proud of the way our defense played, the way [Sterling] played. We trust each other and I think that was the biggest thing,” Bosco said. “We improved from our last game defensively and now we’ve just got to keep going.”

Bosco leads the Terps in caused turnovers with 11 and is second in ground balls and draw controls with nine and 25, respectively.

The Terps played now-No. 6 Denver just four days later, but the defensive momentum didn’t initially carry over in the 8-7 loss. However, Maryland was able to slow down the pace of the Pioneers’ offense, who mustered up only 19 shot attempts. 

Though the Terps suffered their second consecutive loss by one goal, the defense did its job, allowing just one goal in the final 25 minutes to keep Maryland in the game until the final whistle.

“We’re seeing significant improvement and I love how that’s translating and I love hearing that we gave up one goal in 25 minutes. I’d like to give up one goal in 60, but that’s a little harder,” Reese said.

Maryland came relatively close to doing so Wednesday in its 22-4 rout of William & Mary. After allowing three first-quarter goals, when Donovan said they “weren’t playing Maryland defense,” William & Mary scored just once the rest of the game.

In the Maryland masterclass, the Terps caused a season high 13 turnovers and allowed just 12 shots on goal. The turnover mark is even more impressive given how well Maryland did on the draw circle, leading to a low number of William & Mary possessions. 

The win came after playing four of the current top 10 ranked teams in the span of 16 days, started by the dismal Syracuse loss. And as they exited that grueling stretch, they did so with a far better defense than they had a few weeks before.

With such a dominant win following that stretch, Donovan sees the win as a strong confidence booster as the Terps approach conference play.

We really needed this to take a deep breath and realize how incredibly talented we are.”