It was a storybook ending for Maryland striker Jason Garey and his fellow seniors after three years of heartbreak at the College Cup. Last Sunday, the Terps outlasted the determined New Mexico Lobos, 1-0, to finally capture NCAA soccer's ultimate prize.
"For four years we've been working out and practicing almost every day with this as our goal and we've come short so many times. I don't think it's sunk in yet. It's a great way for all the seniors to end our careers."
The plotline couldn't have been scripted any better for the Terps. Coming into the 48-team tournament field as the No. 1 seed, Maryland had to go through the second-seeded Lobos in the finale. The Terps were attempting to erase the ghosts of their last three final four appearances, where they went home early each time after losing their semifinal match. Coming into the game, the Terps boasted the nation's most lethal goalscorer in Garey, while New Mexico had a top MAC Hermann Trophy candidate of its own in mustached goal poacher Jeff Rowland.
But while the nearly 7,000 in attendance at SAS Soccer Park and the live ESPN2 audience witnessed the sort of fast-paced, hard-tackling affair you would expect with a national title up for grabs, the battle between two of the country's top players never materialized. Garey, afterwards named the tourney's offensive MVP (presumably on the strength of his two-goal outburst in UMD's semi win over SMU; he went scoreless in the other four games, including the final) and Rowland made little impact for their respective teams.
On either side of the break, Garey squandered two absolute sitters that fell to him on New Mexico's doorstep, while Rowland had his two first-half chances saved by Terps keeper Chris Seitz. Five minutes after the intermission, Seitz thwarted New Zealander Andrew Boyens' penalty attempt after Rowland's fierce volley had struck Maryland's Maurice Edu on the arm.
The main man for the victors, besides Seitz, was senior forward Marc Burch. Unlike his fellow fourth-year teammates, Burch didn't feel the sting of Maryland's recent final four woes firsthand because the Ohio native transferred in from the University of Evansville before the 2005 season. But you wouldn't have known by watching him play Sunday. The 6'2" Burch played like a man possessed and was easily the best player on the field for either team. Burch started numerous Terps attacks and made himself available for short combinations and long crosses alike all afternoon. Burch hit the free kick winner in the 31st minute after his low shot from the right side deflected off the Lobo wall, sending helpless New Mexico backstop Mike Graczyk the wrong way as the ball rolled past him, giving the Terps a lead they'd never lose.
Burch's goal and Seitz's stop were the game-altering moments, but make no mistake; Maryland thoroughly deserved their title. The Terps outplayed the Lobos, out shooting them 19-11 and doubling New Mexico's five corner kicks. Even in a game where one play could have changed everything, Maryland never looked like they weren't going to win. Their passing was sharper, they were the more creative in linking the defense to the forwards on turnovers and the Terps' back four of Michael Dello-Russo, Chris Lancos, A.J. Delagarza and Davis Glaudemans didn't put a foot wrong all day.
Despite lacking cohesion, New Mexico got impressive performances from lively right-flanker Blake Danaher, imposing central defender Josh Brown and energetic midfielder Lance Watson. The Lobos had trouble getting the ball to Rowland in dangerous spots all game but had their best chance to equalize during the sequence leading up to the PK. In the first five minutes of the second session, The Lobos shelled Seitz's goal, eventually earning the spot kick call. But when Boyens' effort was stopped it seemed to break the Lobos spirit and they never really threatened again, meaning it was just a matter of time until Maryland raised the trophy.
The win was every bit as sweet for Terps coach Sasho Cirovski as it was for his graduating players. Cirovski, in his 13th year in charge at College Park, has built his program into a national powerhouse that's now on par with the Indianas and UCLAs in the college game. Last week he rightly told anyone who would listen that he considered four-straight trips to the final four a tremendous accomplishment - despite missing out on the big prize. Still, without a championship on his resume, many observers refused to give Maryland the credit he felt they had earned. But you could see how much the title meant to Cirovski when he broke down as the final buzzer sounded.
New Mexico also deserves plenty credit for the season it had. In only four years at the helm, coach Jeremy Fishbein has created a powerhouse program of his own. In the future, the NCAA won't simply write the Lobos just because they happen to compete in a no-name conference. That's what cost Fishbein's undefeated team a shot at a title run in last year's competition. Now, the Lobos have a proven track record of success.
"I need to congratulate New Mexico on a great season and on their ascension into the elite ranks of college soccer because they're going to be a program that's going to be around for a long time," gushed the classy Cirovski after the game.
Although the Lobos are losing nine seniors - seven who started Sunday - Fishbein has created a winning culture in Albuquerque and will have no trouble convincing blue-chippers to play in front of the humungous crowds that now routinely pack the UNM Soccer Complex each fall.
Speaking of recruiting, one of the keys to Maryland's success has been Cirovski's ability to bring in kids from across the land. Cirovski's been luring west coasters since the days of current MLS Best XI pick Dan Califf, but this year, the Californian duo of Seitz and M/F Robbie Rogers were major keys during the Terps championship season.
And speaking of Seitz, again, the 6'4" San Luis Obispo native might have been the best pro prospect on display in Cary, N.C. over the weekend. The freshman drew comparisons to former U.S. World Cup star Brad Friedel even before he became the first frosh keeper to hoist a Cup since Friedel did it with UCLA fifteen years ago. Sure, Garey's being pegged as a top-three pick at next month's MLS SuperDraft and Rogers, Rowland and a few others will likely end up signing pro deals, but make sure to keep your sights on Seitz - he's only going to get better.
Lastly, one more Tube Time installment before you go into withdrawal for the next nine months. We thought we'd point out that the college season hasn't come to an end just yet: The three Hermann finalists are Garey, Rowland and Indiana senior midfielder Brian Plotkin - with the winner to be announced January 6th, live on ESPNEWS.
Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.