Taylor Kemp waited four long seasons for his first taste of the College Cup.
The Maryland defender could only grin when the opportunity finally presented itself Saturday.
Kemp and his small group of fellow seniors would finally have their moment on college soccer’s grandest stage, an achievement a decade and a half’s worth of Terrapins in succession savored.
Second-seeded Maryland thumped 10th-seeded Louisville 3-1 at Ludwig Field, an authoritative performance to secure the Terps’ first trip to the NCAA semifinals since 2008 and their seventh since 1998.
“I knew we were going to come out with a magical performance tonight,” said Maryland coach Sasho Cirovski, whose team meets Georgetown on Friday in Hoover, Ala. “That’s what that was. We played a great game against one of the great teams in college soccer, against one of the most well-coached, skillful and determined teams in the country.”
It was a dominant performance for the Terps (20-1-2), but one as much a testament to its veterans who strived so long to live up to the program’s powerful pedigree.
There was Kemp, making his 74th career start but playing for only the fourth time since Oct. 5 because of multiple injuries, assisting on Maryland’s first goal.
There was fellow senior defender London Woodberry, heading in Kemp’s feed for only his fourth career goal.
There was John Stertzer, part of a midfield that helped choke away any chance the Cardinals (14-6-1) could bounce Maryland from the tournament for the second year in a row.
This was the payoff, at long last, a celebration before 3,556 as Maryland finished its home schedule without a defeat and earned a spot on the season’s final weekend with a ferocity emanating from NCAA tournament disappointments the last three years.
It was the fuel for an entire offseason, and perhaps left Maryland too amped for its tournament opener two weeks ago against Brown. That game required survival. The last two were not nearly so perilous.
“You always wonder is it actually going to [pay off], is it actually going to matter?” Kemp said. “Then this year, I couldn’t imagine a better year for this team. It’s been tough for me since I haven’t been able to be on the field, but that doesn’t take away from [the fact] this season isn’t done for one, but it’s something I will never forget. This team has meant as much to me as any I’ve ever been on.”
Much was on the line for Kemp and his fellow seniors when the season began, and it was much the same for Cirovski. The man who built arguably the sport’s strongest program over the last two decades is endearingly bold, and rarely one to back down.
Cirovski did not mince words in the preseason, declaring the year would be a failure if Maryland couldn’t claim at least one championship.
Well, the Terps took the ACC regular season title on a tiebreaker. They won the conference tournament. Now, they are a weekend away from emerging as the last team standing nationally. Maryland is no failure.
This was the dream the program harbored, the hurt of recent misses permeating the roster and the staff. And so even if Cirovski wouldn’t commit to this being the most satisfying team in his long tenure, it clearly would rank near the top of the list.
“It’s tough to compare to all the years because it’s like having children and they’re all so beautiful and you love them all the same,” Cirovski said. “The potential obstacles we could have had with this team, with the talent base, I feel like I have two top-20 teams on my squad. That can be a problem if the players don’t buy in. But they more than bought in. they exceeded my own expectation. Their attitude has been so unbelievable.”
It earned Maryland a place in the College Cup, the end-of-year showcase Cirovski chased, then chased again, then became a fixture at in the first half of the last decade. The Terps finally broke through in 2005, then triumphed in their next trip in 2008.
It’s a grand legacy to uphold for a bunch fresh off securing a place in Maryland lore Saturday. Just what that place is will be determined over the next game or two.
“It’s the most selfless team I’ve ever been around in my life,” Cirovski said. “I love them. We still have more to do.”
—- Patrick Stevens