FASTEST TO 500

FASTEST TO 500

After 28 years, Maryland field hockey's Missy Meharg becomes the youngest Division I coach to reach 500 wins

Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics

Published on October 4, 2015

Missy Meharg was content.

Thanks to a 14-1 shooting advantage, her Terrapins field hockey team owned a 2-0 lead after the first half against Princeton on Sept. 22.

But the coach wanted more.

So while her 24 players gathered in the locker room for their 10-minute break, Meharg rummaged through the Field Hockey and Lacrosse Complex and found some heart-shaped stickers.

Meharg handed one to each Terp to keep on their sticks for the rest of the game as she preached for her group to boost its intensity.

To capitalize on scoring looks. To sprint on and off the field for substitutions. To compete in every second of the last 35 minutes.

To play with their hearts.

“They said ‘This is so corny,’” Meharg said. “‘You’re like an elementary school teacher.’”

The Terps went on to score a third goal to seal their first shutout of the season, but Meharg was more pleased with how loose they played, laughing every time they saw the heart on their stick.

The victory pushed Meharg’s career record to 496-122-9 in her 28 seasons at the helm of the program. Twelve days and four wins later, Meharg achieved perhaps her biggest milestone in a career glittered with seven national championships, 20 conference titles and an unprecedented nine National Coach of the Year awards.

Five hundred wins is a feat only three other field hockey coaches in NCAA Division I history can claim.

A feat Meharg became the fastest — and youngest — to achieve.

A feat Meharg reached this weekend after 28 years of passion and creativity on and off the pitch.

A feat that’s the product of 28 years of heart.

‘This is my thing’

ABOVE: Coach Missy Meharg walks to the sideline during the Terps’ 5-2 win against New Hampshire on Sept. 19.(Marquise McKine/The Diamondback)

In the first few years after she took over the Terps program in 1988, Meharg held moments of silence at the end of practice.

She’d require her players to synchronize their watches with hers, and they’d take time to reflect.

In one instance, though, Lisa Towns, née Buente, and a teammate started to laugh. More than 20 years later, Towns can’t remember what was funny, but she does remember Meharg was livid.

Towns ranks fourth in the program with 70 career goals. She was a two-time first-team All-American. And in 2006, she was inducted into this university’s Athletic Hall of Fame.

But in that moment, none of her talents mattered. The newly minted coach threw Towns out of practice.

“This is my thing. This is what I’m doing, and how can you even laugh in the middle of what I’m doing?” Towns remembers Meharg exclaiming.

Before current associate head coach Dina Rizzo joined Meharg’s staff in 2010, she played for the Terps from 1998 to 2001. Meharg’s temper hadn’t softened.

Meharg would break clipboards. She’d throw her glasses.

Meharg claims her watch-syncing, clipboard-tossing days ended when she adopted her two sons in 1998, but “she is intense now,” Rizzo said. “It’s a different intense.”

(Marquise McKine/The Diamondback)

‘Inspire over motivate’

ABOVE: Coach Missy Meharg looks on from the sideline during the Terps’ 5-1 win against Michigan State on Sept. 27. (Marquise McKine/The Diamondback)

 

She starts every day at about 6 a.m. with a cup of coffee — heavy on the froth milk and grain sugar. While she sips it, she flips between the news and opponents’ game film.

Then comes her 45-minute walk along the Severn River with her two West Highland Terriers, Maddie and Westie.

When she arrives in College Park by mid morning, she reviews more video before the Terps’ two-hour practice. Then Meharg packs as much as she can into those 120 minutes.

“I love to inspire over motivate,” Meharg said. “Teach you how to feel it from the inspiration and the spirit.”

If the Terps lag below her standards in a drill, Meharg now spares her clipboards and pulls her team into a huddle with a stern speech.

“Just her saying ‘Pick it up,’” midfielder Alyssa Parker said, “is enough alone for us to be like, ‘Just do it.’”

Still, Meharg’s more volatile younger self shines through at times. In the Terps’ clash with Michigan on Sept. 25, the second of three video referrals in the game sent Meharg into a tirade.

The Terps appeared to take a 2-1 lead in the second half when forward Welma Luus banked in a shot. Michigan’s coaches, however, challenged a Terps restart foul the officials missed moments earlier.

While the referees conferred on the field, Meharg darted to them, arms flapping as she pleaded her case. When she returned to the sideline, she paced back and forth and continued shouting.

Luus’ goal eventually stood and decided the game, but Meharg’s fire wasn’t extinguished. She cried for defender Carrie Hanks to “be like a tornado” and continuously yelled “pass” until her offense’s ball movement met her standards.

“It really makes you feel like she cares for me; she has my back,” Parker said. “We have girls on the team who bring up our energy, but at the end of the day, she is the heart of the team.”

‘My thing is people’

 

ABOVE: Defender Sarah Sprink and coach Missy Meharg are all smiles after Maryland’s 2-1 win over Michigan at the Field Hockey and Lacrosse Complex on Sept. 25. (Alexander Jonesi/The Diamondback)

Last November, midfielder Faye Curran Skyped Meharg from England to set up her official visit. The Cambridge University alumna wanted to attend a graduate-level journalism program in the U.S. and play NCAA field hockey.

When Curran and her mother arrived in College Park, Curran fell in love with the team’s high-tempo playing style, players and coaches. Her mom and Meharg, meanwhile, sealed Curran’s fate over dinner. The women bonded over stories about Curran and their roles as mothers.

“Missy openly admitted that my mom is cooler than me,” Curran said.

Parker also had a tough decision. While College Park was closer to her Woodbine home, she garnered significant interest from rival North Carolina.

But as she watched Meharg’s positivity during her visits, Parker knew the coach was someone who makes “you just want to do the best you can to make her proud.”

“My thing is people,” Meharg said. “My thing is helping people reach their goals.”

That’s why she takes a personal approach to coaching each player.

Curran performs best under scrutiny, so Meharg switches up Curran’s playing time. She’ll put her newcomer in leadership positions. She’ll sit with Curran and feed her corrections — to run faster, to be louder, to be quieter.

Towns, though, disliked being hounded. So rather than forcing her forward to conform to a certain mold, Meharg gave Towns suggestions on how to fix something in her own style.

Midfielder Anna Dessoye, meanwhile, isn’t a player who needs long pep talks. Before most games, she and Meharg will exchange just a few sentences or even just a few seconds of eye contact.

“She had an open mind,” Towns said. “There’s always more than one way to skin a cat.”

Meharg could’ve discarded that personalized approach when the Terps dropped three straight games in early September this year. After all, her team hadn’t suffered a losing streak of that magnitude under her watch since 1998.

Instead, Meharg persuaded her players to channel their frustration.

“When somebody comes and says something to you that doesn’t feel good or you don’t like what they’re saying, you’ve got to twist it,” Meharg told her team. “That’s a compliment because they couldn’t even say that to [you] unless you’ve had success, unless they know your potential.”

She also held one-on-one meetings with her veteran players to critique their individual performances. While watching film, she guided them in making better decisions.

They accepted the criticism and have since built an eight-game winning streak.

“They look at her, as much as she doesn’t want to think it,” Rizzo said. “She’s like, ‘They shouldn’t always play for me. They should play for each other,’ and this and that. But it’s like, that’s not why they chose to come here. She’s the best coach in the country.”

‘That’s just classic Missy’

 

Parker bounded into the locker room last week searching for Rizzo. The senior’s mom had just dropped off two bags of candy corn — Parker’s and Rizzo’s favorite.

Rizzo wasn’t around, so Parker left the second share in her locker. Parker couldn’t find her the next day, either.

When she asked Meharg where Rizzo was, Meharg said she had a great idea: She wanted to help Parker take a picture of the candy corn to send to Rizzo.

“That’s just classic Missy,” Parker said. “She’s not only my coach; she’s like a friend.”

Meharg cultivates a personal relationship with every player she coaches. The Terps say she’s always checking in individually.

She doesn’t sever that bond when her players graduate, either.

She’s written countless letters of recommendation for her players’ applications to graduate schools. Meharg was Towns’ reference in her background check to become a Delaware state trooper.

When Rizzo played on the U.S. national team while in school, Meharg helped her arrange leaves of absence. Several alumni still play overseas, and Meharg coordinated their travel, too.

“She cared about and loved us,” said Kristina Edmonds, a Terps defender from 2003 to 2006 and a recipient of a Meharg recommendation. “Loved us so much.”

The feeling is mutual, in spite of — and perhaps because of — Meharg’s plethora of quirks.

When she bought her Audi in 2012, she named it Hattie in honor of defender Harriet Tibble’s graduation that year.

Words like “tap,” “jink,” “skit” and “Terp to Terp” are staples in Meharg’s vocabulary. When Meharg can’t form words in the heat of the game, she’ll resort to “ye-ye-ye-yow” sound.

Meharg’s dialect is seared into her players’ brains.

And then there were Meharg’s clogs — the polarizing bright-red footwear Meharg sported through multiple national-championship seasons but have been missing in action in 2015.

“They were quite the pair of shoes,” Dessoye said.

“I think she retired them,” Parker said.

“Thank God they’re gone,” Rizzo said.

“She just has a really great fashion sense,” said Ellen Ott, a Terps defender from 2005 to 2008. “Maybe for her next 500 wins, she could get a new pair of clogs.”

55f63d5da9569.image

Coach Missy Meharg speaks with midfielder Lein Holsboer after she was knocked down during the Terps’ 6-1 victory over American on Sept. 13. (Marquise McKine/The Diamondback)

‘Pressure is an illusion’

 

At the 2011 NCAA Final Four banquet, each player and coach on the four teams received a stress ball as a participation gift — at least, they were supposed to.

Meharg stole the box before they were distributed, and she hid it on the Terps’ bus.

As the Terps drove back to the hotel that night, Meharg subtly distributed nearly 100 balls among her staff. Then she told her players to stand.

On the count of three, Meharg started a dodgeball fight. On the bus. Right before her team played a national semifinal game.

A few days later, the Terps downed No. 1-seed North Carolina for the national title.

“Pressure is an illusion,” Meharg said. “If you let that illusion become a constant, it’s very hard to get out of it.”

Part of coaching top talent — ESPNU and ESPN The Magazine named Meharg the No. 5 recruiter, one spot ahead of Duke men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, in all of college sports in 2011 — is managing the stress the players often feel from their families, their communities and themselves.

Meharg doesn’t want to add to the anguish.

So a stuffed green ninja turtle, Rafael, sits on the Terps bench each practice. Whoever is deemed “the player of the practice” accepts Rafael at the end of the workout. That Terp then highlights a teammate’s accomplishment the next day and gives her Rafael.

Lolo, a pink cosmetic bag with a green turtle on the front Meharg found in a Cape Cod boutique this summer, takes over on game days.

Each game, Meharg and her staff pack Lolo with a treat. After the match, the coaches award Lolo to their “player of the game.”

It’s all part of the triangle of priorities Meharg wants her players to live by: academics, social life and field hockey.

“She says to be good in one,” Parker said, “you need to have equal balance in all of them.”

So when the Terps play away games, Meharg takes her team sightseeing, to the movies or out for team dinners. In Boston for the 2013 ACC tournament, Meharg took the Terps to the oldest restaurant in continuous service in America, the Union Oyster House.

And the creativity Meharg developed while growing up among artists and writers and spending her childhood summers in Italy is almost always on full display.

Meharg knew the Terps would play the Big Ten tournament later in the 2014 season in Michigan’s stadium, so during a regular-season trip to Ann Arbor, Michigan, Meharg made each player pick out a spot to call “home.” When they returned two months later, she wanted at least one thing to look familiar.

Parker, for example, picked a letter on Michigan’s logo, while defender Kasey Tapman picked the concession stand.

That same weekend, Meharg also hid a small turtle figurine in the stadium for the Terps to search for when they came back — something to look forward to, an added layer of comfort.

 

That turtle is likely still buried somewhere in Michigan’s complex because the Terps never found it.

Perhaps they’ll soon have another opportunity to hunt for the trinket and return “home” — the 2015 NCAA Final Four is at Michigan.

Meharg has coached the Terps to 16 Final Four appearances so far.

Her heart is set on making it 17 this November.

But first, she had to secure win No. 500.

Callie Caplan is a staff writer for The Diamondback. You can reach her at ccaplandbk@gmail.com and on Twitter at @CallieCaplan.

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