By Ryan Berti, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - At 7 p.m. on Thursday night, the Penn State Lacrosse Field will be the venue for a top-five showdown between No. 5 Penn State and No. 1 Maryland. The high stakes of the matchup may be enough to describe why this is the biggest game of the season for the Nittany Lions, but the rivalry between the two teams must be understood in order to know just how intense the play will be under the lights.
"I think the rivalry [with Maryland] has grown throughout the first few years of having Big Ten lacrosse. It's always an exciting game," Penn State head coach Missy Doherty said. "With a team as good as them and what we're bringing to the table, it's gonna be a pretty good competition."
That competition should be second-to-none on the Penn State schedule this season as it goes toe-to-toe with the lone undefeated team remaining in the national rankings. But, the team is riled up for much more than that, as hometown pride is on the line for many of the Blue and White's crusaders.
Among the squad, 13 Nittany Lions and all three coaches grew up inside the Maryland's borders. Included in that bunch is the team's leader in points, Steph Lazo, who is excited for the matchup and says it will be a family affair.
"It's always nice to beat the hometown team," Lazo said. "Even though it's not at Maryland and all our family and friends can't come, we're still expecting a pretty big crowd and all our friends are like 'Yeah we're coming to support you guys. You guys are doing so well this season.' So coming out and playing the hometown team; it's always a good feeling, always a good game and we're really excited for Thursday."
Coach Doherty knows the team especially well. As a 1997 graduate of the university and a four-year letter winning defender, Doherty experienced vast success and says she learned a lot of her coaching ways in her time as a Terrapin.
But the ties do not stop there for head coach. Down on the other end of the sideline for the game will be Doherty's counterpart in Maryland head coach Cathy Reese. Reese and Doherty were former teammates for three years with the Terrapins in the 90's and claimed a national championship in every one of those seasons. Now pitted against one another as adversaries in the same conference, Doherty says they still share a friendship but know that for 60 minutes they each have to get down to business.
"Cathy's done a great job with the program and she's one of my good friends there in the coaching world so it's always good to play against each other. But obviously the competition gets tough once the whistle blows and that's what makes it fun to play against them," Doherty said.
Each coach brings a unique perspective to their respective teams which seems to stay true to their playing days.
Reese, a former elite attacker for the Terps during the title runs, now heads a powerful offensive unit that scores the second most goals per game in the nation (16.87). Meanwhile Doherty, a former defensive standout, looks over a team that is top-20 in the country in scoring defense and top-15 in scoring margin. She looks to transfer her defensive knowledge to her players and recognizes that the key to victory Thursday night will be through the team's defense.
"I think defensively is going to be our mark against Maryland. They have a lot of great scorers and you need to be ready to come out and play solid against each one of them," Doherty said.
As Doherty gears up her players for the vital matchup, the team will be willing and able to practice what she preaches. Lazo says she and her teammates look to the coach as a spirited leader who always is pushing them towards success.
"I think a really good word to describe Missy is passion," Lazo said. "Whether it's on the field, off the field, she's always in your corner. She's always pushing you to be the best that you can. And this is a huge week for us and she just wants us to put out our best ability."
Doherty, like many of the Maryland natives, may have a spot for the state and university somewhere in their hearts, but the head coach says the only colors now coursing through her veins are blue and white. She still can remember her playing days as a Terrapin, however, and says she gets reminded of those championship teams all the time by closely watching the team she gets to coach each and every game.
"[There are] a lot of similarities. The comradery, the great leadership, the ability to really compete in any game," Doherty said. "I've seen a lot of those same things within this Penn State team and it's why it's been a really exciting team to coach all year."