This was how Sasho Cirovski and Taylor Kemp wanted it. The longtime Maryland soccer coach and one of his program's anchors sat side by side Saturday, savoring their first trip to the College Cup together.
This was nothing new for Cirovski, who has taken the second-seeded Terrapins to seven NCAA semifinal appearances since 1998. It was for Kemp, a four-year stalwart whose injury-plagued senior season gave way to a riveting return in last weekend's quarterfinal defeat of Louisville.
"It's been a long haul," Cirovski said. "You know as a player who has invested so much and then to see it sort of slipping away from you [and] to come back and add a hammer to it, that was a big moment. That was a good night."
Maryland hopes to have two more in its first College Cup since 2008. The Terps (20-1-2) meet third-seeded Georgetown (19-3-2) in Friday's semifinals in Hoover, Ala.; the winner will face Creighton or Indiana in Sunday's title game.
Kemp will be at the College Cup, just as he planned at the start of Maryland's magical season. But there were few guarantees in October when the defender, a career-long fixture at left back, faced the possibility of missing the final months of his college career.
A sports hernia left him with little chance of a full recovery before season's end, and so Kemp found himself in Cirovski's office Oct. 15 nearly resigned to inspiring teammates behind the scenes rather than on the pitch.
Cirovski had other ideas. He doggedly ran through his soccer contacts, discovering there was a specialist in Germany who perfected a surgery with a quick turnaround time. Kemp would board a plane to Munich in 48 hours, have surgery the following day and then hope for the best. They would figure out all the details on the fly.
"When it was first presented to me, I was like, 'No way. Sash is just cooking up some plan in the way he does looking into everything,'" Kemp said. "But I didn't think there was a realistic chance of it happening for a lot of reasons."
Yet off to Germany he went, returning to College Park just a few minutes after an Oct. 19 victory over North Carolina commenced. By Nov. 1, Kemp played 25 minutes against Wake Forest, and he started Maryland's ACC tournament opener.
But Kemp and the Terps had not anticipated another muscle could be compromised through rushing back. This time, a hip adductor injury sidelined Kemp. This time, the games he missed were in November.
"He was very depressed with the second injury because he had done everything right to get the hernia right and all the sudden he sees the ACC tournament semis and final slip away and the first couple games in the NCAA tournament slip away," Cirovski said. "We had some good talks of reassurance."
As flustered as he was with his own situation, Kemp did not flinch in helping keep the Terps on the right track.
Since the start of the year, he organized player-only meetings on Mondays and continued to do so when he couldn't play. He would visit teammates' dorms to ensure they were doing well and also invested additional time after practice to work with younger players.
"When I stopped being on the field so much, I just felt like I had to still be able to help the team," Kemp said. "I would just think of what can I do to make sure I'm still making a big influence on the guys."
There was little doubt he remained a significant force, even as he missed 11 of 16 games.
"We all want him on the field, but he embraced the role he had," forward Patrick Mullins said. "Unfortunately, he couldn't be out there, but that didn't mean he wasn't an integral part of the team. That didn't mean he wasn't going to be the best leader he could be."
Still, there was a bit of reality. However valuable Kemp was in the locker room, he wanted to be on the Terps' back line when it mattered most. Last week, he trained four times and increasingly felt ready to play. He worked with athletic trainers since his setback to build up leg strength. By Friday, Cirovski could tell Kemp was ready.
It would be a stellar evening. Kemp assisted on Maryland's first goal. He would go a full 90 minutes, offering a thumbs up every 10 minutes to the sideline to assure Cirovski he could continue. And he would be in the middle of a celebration he waited so long to be a part of as the Terps earned a place on college soccer's biggest stage.
"It's almost like the stars aligned this past weekend for us in the way we were playing Louisville, the team that sent us home [in 2011]," Kemp said. "For me personally, because I could finally play and the way it just all worked out. ... Just for the team to finally break through and get through. We're not done. We have a lot of work to do. But to get to where we are just felt good."
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Patrick Stevens has covered Maryland and other Mid-Atlantic college sports for more than a decade. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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