Photo by Tony Quinn/ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
The University of Maryland's overtime loss to Michigan in the NCAA tournament quarterfinals last season was a shocking upset, and although it ended the Terps' hopes of a national title, good has come from it.
Maryland's early elimination last year has been partially responsible for the Terps' undefeated start to 2011, as it has served as motivation for forward Casey Townsend, who is off to a red-hot start this season.
Townsend has scored eight goals in as many games in his senior season, one that almost never happened. Townsend was close to leaving Maryland at the end of last year in order to turn pro, but even with a Generation adidas contract being offered, Townsend felt that that he unfinished business in the college game.
"I think about (the loss to Michigan) almost every day. I hear about it from almost every body at home about how we lost to Michigan," said Townsend, a Traverse City, Mich., native. "I've kind of just been using that as motivation this year a little bit. We felt like we should've been in the Final Four, and that was a major letdown for us as a team, and I think a lot of us are using that this year to play better and we want to get back there this year."
Maryland currently looks like as a good bet as any to make the College Cup this year, having started the season with a 7-0-1 record. Townsend, the team captain, has started in all eight games and has been a big factor in helping Maryland overcome the loss of seven starters from last year's squad.
Part of the reason for that is due to Townsend returning to the style of play that he demonstrated in his freshman year, when he played without pressure. That wasn't the case in his sophomore or junior years, as he was injured for much of the former and may have not been entirely focused during the latter.
"He's playing very free this year," said Maryland head coach Sasho Cirovski. "I think he put a lot of pressure on himself last year for various reasons; I think he might have been distracted by the whole pro thing. But right now he's having a lot of fun and he works hard and he's been more of a clinical finisher than in the past year or two. He just looks like a very mature, complete and composed player right now. He's a lot of fun to watch."
Opposing defenses likely don't share that sentiment, but at least one rival coach does.
"The best compliment for Casey this year came from an opposing ACC coach," said Cirovski. "(The coach) came up to me after a game and said, 'I think he's going to be too good for MLS. He should go to Europe.'"
Townsend, who Cirovski compares to Taylor Twellman due to their similar aerial and finishing abilities, has admittedly given much thought to turning pro. But along with coming back and playing for the Terps, Townsend also wanted to finish his degree, which he is scheduled to do in December.
On the field, the 5-foot-11, 161-pound forward is hoping he can continue to score goals and get himself in the conversation for the Hermann Trophy. Townsend knows, however, that team-oriented goals are what matter most.
"I came in and won a national championship, and I'd like to leave as a national champion as well," said Townsend. "Obviously, the ACC is important for us. I haven't won the regular season title since I've been here so that's one of the things we have an eye on this year."
To prepare for the season, Townsend went out by himself nearly every day during the summer and trained for an hour or two. Some days he worked on shooting, while on others he would bring a teammate and to help him practice getting on the end of crosses."
Working on his game during the offseason is nothing new for Townsend. It is something he's done every summer the past few years.
What has been different is the amount of work he's put into his training. In years past Townsend might have missed a pick-up session or passed on an opportunity to practice. But this past summer he demonstrated a newfound commitment, working the entire summer, even up to three times a day on some occasions.
That different mentality that Townsend has brought to the team in practice and on gamedays is something that Cirovski has noticed. It's also something the head coach admires.
"This year he's had a couple of multiple-goal games against top teams. There were times maybe when he would score a goal and maybe took the foot off the accelerator. Now he just pushes through. I know even sometimes when I take him out of a game when he's worked real hard, he's gracious but you can tell he wants more. I respect that."
Clubs around the world have taken notice, too. Teams in MLS and from overseason have expressed interest in Townsend, and that interest is only going to increase if Townsend continues to go on a rampage against opposing defenses.
After all, that is part of the reason why he decided to return to the Terps for his senior year.
"I don't think I've had a season here that I'm capable of in terms of goals, and I'm trying to do that this year," said Townsend. "But it was a combination of finishing school and a feeling of unfinished business that brought me back."
On and off the field, Townsend likes finish what he's started, and he is poised to do just that in 2011.