The skies opened about a half-hour before Friday’s early evening start in College Park, and the stands at Ludwig Field grew ever more packed anyway.
The water-logged pitch required some mending at halftime, and still the boisterous crowd —- the second largest in school history —- stuck around.
And when freshman Schillo Tshuma deflected a Patrick Mullins shot in overtime, the second-largest soccer crowd in Maryland history finally got to roar as loud as it could.
“This was a great night for us on many different levels,” coach Sasho Cirovski said.
The No. 1 Terrapins had upended No. 2 North Carolina, needing a golden goal to finally break a scoreless deadlock. And so it went for a team that might just be the best of Cirovski’s 20 to date at Maryland.
Yes, a program with two national titles and four more College Cup appearances to its credit under Cirovski is as strong as ever. Its fans are as rowdy as ever. Its postseason prospects are as potent as they’ve been over the last dozen years.
And Cirovski’s dreams are a big as ever.
This was the sort of night he and his program have thrived on for so much of the last two decades, the type they clearly have savored in an unbeaten run to date.
Not to mention the kind featuring an impressive bit of dominance early and a bit of luck late.
Tshuma played a role in both of the game-turning plays. In the first, he was whistled for a foul in the box in the 89th minute, handing North Carolina’s Rob Lovejoy a penalty kick.
Maryland keeper Keith Cardona didn’t have time to receive a scouting report from the sideline. He had gone over the tendencies of nearly every Tar Heel over the last few days.
All except for Lovejoy, who just returned from injury. No matter. Lovejoy fired to Cardona’s right.
Cardona went right.
“I guessed right,” Cardona said.
So it was off to overtime, where Tshuma finished off Mullins’ look, uncorking a frenzy as the Terps (13-0-1, 6-0-0 ACC) remained perfect in the conference and upended the Tar Heels (11-2-1, 4-1-1).
“When I committed that PK, I felt like everything stopped,” Tshuma said. “That was terrible. Keith is a very good goalkeeper, and after he saved that I felt a little bit of relief. John Stertzer came up to me and said to stay in it because we had more time to play. I got back into the game, and thank God I scored the winning goal.”
The mention of Stertzer was no accident. There is a settled quality to these Terps, and it is has everything to do with the likes of Stertzer and Mullins and defender London Woodberry.
They’ve seen plenty, endured maybe more than they ever wanted. They watched last year’s strong start unravel with a 1-3-2 finish and an early NCAA tournament exit, Maryland’s third straight prior to the semifinals.
It isn’t difficult to sense such a quick ouster is unlikely this time around. This bunch perhaps does not field either the best offense or defense Cirovski has produced. It is, though, surely among his pluckiest outfits .
“They’re very stoic and they’re very determined and I thought they really kept their cool,” Cirovski said.
They did so long enough, at least, to get Maryland within a draw against either Clemson or Wake Forest of clinching the No. 1 seed in the ACC tournament. The trip to Wake to close the regular season might be the only time in nearly two months they cross the state line.
The ACC tournament will be played in the area. The Terps are surely headed for a top —- quite possibly THE top —- NCAA tournament seed.
Just like against North Carolina, everything seems to be coming up Maryland. A team that made little secret at the season’s outset of its hopes for a run well into December is validating its aims.
Maryland —- players, fans and its ever-ambitious coach alike —- is thinking big. Friday, in all of its magnificence and wildness, was just the latest sign it is warranted.
“This was everything you want from a 1 and 2 game,” Cirovski said. “You have great drama, there’s goal posts being rattled, there was great plays being made, there was great individual duels, great team duels. I’ve got a feeling we’ll see each other a couple more times this year.”
—- Patrick Stevens