Terps closer to desired destination despite loss

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The scoreboard at Byrd Stadium remained illuminated deep into Saturday night – after the final goal, after press conferences not far from its shadow and after Maryland packed up after yet another close loss to Johns Hopkins.

The Terrapins’ last, best chance – fired from the stick of their most potent finisher – grazed the pipe. The Blue Jays’ opportunity settled in the back of the net. Both shots unfolded in overtime.

“I’ll be very forthright,” Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala said. “That game could have gone either way. They hit a pipe at the end of the game and if it goes in the goal, I’m the having press conference you guys just had 40 seconds ago.”

But he wasn’t, as is often the case in the self-proclaimed greatest rivalry in the sport.  Hopkins got the  better of Maryland in eight of the last 10 meetings. Five of those victories came by a goal. Four came in overtime.

This one, perhaps more than any of the others, could have and maybe should have tilted to the No. 4 Terps (8-3).

It wasn’t so much the No. 3 Blue Jays (9-2) were unworthy on a cold College Park evening before announced crowd of 8,072. Chris Boland scored five goals. Kyle Wharton zipped in the winner from the right wing with 16 seconds remaining in overtime. Hopkins did was it so often does: Mercilessly exploit vulnerabilities en route to victory.

Certainly, Maryland will rue squandering an 8-3 lead in the second half, but it also rallied from down 11-9 to force overtime. Once there, the Terps won the faceoff and their best feeder (Ryan Young) found their best finisher (Joe Cummings) in perfect position to complete a sweep of Virginia, Navy and Hopkins in successive weeks.

Only it clanked off the goal, a slightly imperfect placement at a highly imperfect time.

“I was pretty excited,” Cummings, who matched his career best with four goals, said of his look. “Ryan made an awesome feed like he does all the time. I just hit the pipe. That happens.”

Added Young: “Joe is probably going to hit that 99 times out of 100.”

Therein lies the curious part of these senior-laden Terps, whose penchant for veering off script is fascinating. A team with a known quantities on attack received nine goals from the midfield. Uber-talented freshman goalie Niko Amato made a dozen saves, but two of his errant passes immediately led to Hopkins goals.

Cummings’ emergence as a star could be considered both a mild surprise and a natural occurrence. The junior’s understated style of play always helped optimize players around him, and his skills as an attackman make him a dicey matchup in the midfield. Why he didn’t seem like an obvious breakout candidate seems puzzling in retrospect.

A shot slightly off target doesn’t change that. A stinging loss to a rival doesn’t either, especially when the setback legitimately was nearly a win.

“We’re an inch away from that ball going in,” Maryland coach John Tillman said. “Joe Cummings, if you tell me anyone in the country can finish that ball, I got him. That’s the guy I want. And you know what? Down the road, we’ll put the ball back in his stick.”

Ultimately, down the road is the greater issue for Maryland, anyway. It hasn’t reached a final four since 2006 and the Terps’ 35-year national title drought isn’t going to be talked about less until it is resolved. Tillman, a smart man who is in his first season in College Park largely because predecessor Dave Cottle didn’t succeed in the postseason, is acutely aware of it all.

The Terps’ profile isn’t prolific, in part because a handful of in-state opponents who are usually decent (Navy, Towson and UMBC) are struggling and in part due to the inability to close out Duke or North Carolina or now Hopkins.

But Maryland isn’t reeling. Far from it. Barely six weeks from Memorial Day, the Terps followed up their manhandlings of Virginia and Navy with a measure of validation against Hopkins

It just didn’t win a close game with the Blue Jays. It was the same as always, except it was not.

“If that team is the third best team in the country, we’re an inch away from being [that good] ourselves,” Tillman said. “I think we showed we’re making progress.”

There wasn’t enough for a victory. No matter. The promise it could eventually come to fruition is useful enough, particularly with the time of the year looming when final scores on glittery scoreboards linger far longer in the minds of most than merely a single evening.

Patrick Stevens

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