The historic Maryland lacrosse career that nearly never happened

ByVicki L. Friedman Via <a Href="" Title="espn" Class="espn_sc_byline">espn </a>
May 12, 2016, 10:44 AM

&#151; -- COLLEGE PARK, Maryland -- Lacrosse's most decorated athlete doesn't embrace the term her family often teases her with: slob. Taylor Cummings admits to abandoning a glass of chocolate milk by her bed for more than a day, and maybe last week's clean laundry hasn't yet been put away, but she's insanely motivated about what counts.

The Maryland senior runs every morning, unhindered by gusts that shake the windows of her College Park apartment on this unseasonably cold Sunday. Despite wind chills in the 20s, Cummings is in a tank top after her two miles.

She's fastidious about completing her classwork on time; late assignments don't cut it in the Robert H. Smith School of Business, where the finance major is finishing up her bachelor's degree.

In lacrosse, the agile and athletic midfielder is the sport's most dreaded matchup, a versatile playmaker who earned the game's highest honor, the Tewaaraton Award, as a sophomore, won it again as a junior and is a favorite to become the first three-time winner.

"Taylor is unique in that she has such a champion mindset about her in everything she does -- in the classroom, at every practice, in every drill, on the field, off the field. She wants to be the best that she can be in all areas of her life," Maryland coach Cathy Reese says. "As a player she does it all for us. Taylor's taken the draw since she was a freshman and has dominated the center circle. Offensively, she's a threat in her dodging and feeding, and defensively, she's one of the best I've seen."

As the Terps (19-0) look to punctuate a perfect season with the program's 13th national championship, Cummings hopes to bring an outstanding collegiate career to a close with a third straight NCAA title.

Top-seeded Maryland, which received a first-round bye, will open its quest for a three-peat on Sunday, hosting the winner of Friday's game between Virginia and Johns Hopkins.

Playing at the Field Hockey & Lacrosse Complex where the Terps have not lost since 2012, Cummings is not ready to dwell on the fact that her time at Maryland is nearing an end.

"It's probably a bit naïve and probably a bit digging my head in the sand," says Cummings, who grew up in Ellicott City, Maryland, about 35 minutes from the Maryland campus. "As I get closer to graduation, I'm savoring every moment because soon, I'll be sitting on the couch watching."

Jam-packed with milestones, her college years have included a triple-overtime national championship loss to North Carolina in what's arguably the best lacrosse game ever played; a victory over Syracuse for her first NCAA title in 2014; and a come-from-behind effort last season to avenge that championship loss to the Tar Heels and defend her national title.

The three-time All-American has started all 88 of her collegiate games, leads the Terps in a multitude of statistical categories and is a member of the U.S. national team.

Twice she's been to the ESPYs, on the ballot as Best Female College Athlete alongside, among others, basketball star Breanna Stewart and Olympic swimmer Missy Franklin. Coming face-to-face on the red carpet with her favorite actor of all time, Shemar Moore, aka FBI profiler Derek Morgan on "Criminal Minds," she couldn't form words when her dad dug out his camera.

"Oh, my God, I love him," says Cummings, who immediately texted the pic to her mom with these words: "Life made."

Funny that this Baltimore girl almost wrote off coming to the University of Maryland before ever giving it a chance. The early plan was to be like Mike -- Cummings, that is. Taylor's father was a soccer play at William & Mary, where he met his wife, Carol. Taylor was born June 2, 1994, just six weeks after their first anniversary.

Both parents were intent on Taylor doing some sort of activity. She wasn't artsy. A four-week ballet class turned into two sessions.

"Taylor wasn't the most graceful person," Carol notes.

But her boundless energy made sports the obvious choice.

"I was a whirling dervish of a kid, always moving, always doing something," Taylor says. "I would play roller hockey, skateboard, sled, snowboard, play flag football; I was one of the boys growing up. I'd come home from school, set down my backpack and my mom didn't see me until night."

Taylor played on six teams at a time at one point, but soccer came first for the strong and fast sixth-grader. When friends tried lacrosse, she did, too, though it was awkward for her.

"I couldn't throw; I couldn't catch," she says. "Lacrosse was hard for me and I was blind. I went to the eye doctor and got contacts and that made it a little easier."

Trying to fit in soccer and lacrosse, she was put on a B team until travel coach Scott Robinson recognized her potential and agreed to accommodate her schedule.

"Stick skills you can teach, but her explosiveness, her tenacity, her perseverance ..." says Robinson. Her parents credit him for instilling in their daughter the foundation that enabled her to push herself in a sport that grew on her because it offered such a challenge.

"If Scott had coached badminton, Taylor would have played badminton," Mike Cummings says.

"She would give him a kidney," Carol adds.

Three sports turned into one at McDonogh School, where Taylor finished without a lacrosse loss her final three years. Every college wanted the honor roll student who fancied herself rebellious to the point where going to school close to home was not an option.

"I wanted to go to Stanford or North Carolina or Florida, somewhere where Mom and David weren't in my back pocket," Cummings says. When her parents suggested she consider Maryland, the answer was an emphatic no.

Growing up a ball girl for Terps soccer games, Cummings detested the stop-and-go traffic and strip mall scenery on Route 1 leading to the university. It was Robinson who convinced her to meet with Reese.

Slouched in the passenger seat next to her mother with sister Kelsey alongside and Mike Cummings on speakerphone away on business, she groaned, "This is a complete waste of gas money."

Three hours later, when Mike Cummings answered his cell again, he couldn't believe what he was hearing. "Dad, I want to commit to Maryland."

"Whoa, Tay," he told her. "Hold on."

Walking into Reese's office that afternoon was surreal, Taylor says today. Reese and her assistant coaches were shouting back and forth -- "about ordering Chinese food," Cummings recalls, laughing. "When you go on a recruiting visit, you don't expect to see the true side of a coaching staff. They were the realest people. And they made it clear they wanted me. At 15 or 16, it's cool to hear somebody really wants you."

Mike Cummings wanted a chance to see the school himself and to examine the academics. "As great as college lacrosse is, you don't get a $20 million signing bonus," he says. "I knew she had to get an education."

Taylor's next trip to College Park was with Dad in tow, and both were impressed after a meeting with academic advisers.

Four years later, Cummings cannot imagine a game without a parent present, and almost always, it's both. Carol Cummings has missed two games in four years -- all to attend championship lacrosse games for Kelsey, now a freshman attacker for the Terps. Mike has missed just five. Both wear jackets showing off Nos. 21 and 12 on the sleeve for Taylor and Kelsey. They sit apart.

Carol props herself against the fence surrounding the turf for home games. Mike climbs to the top of the bleachers and stands slightly to the left of midfield, arms folded. He's in place at least 40 minutes early, so he can lay eyes on Taylor and she on him.

"On the road, it's trickier, but I can always find him," she says.

Seconds before the draw, Taylor cocks her head just at the right angle so she can lock into her father's eyes. It's a tradition born from the first time the Terps faced Syracuse during Cummings' freshman year, pitting her against Kayla Treanor, another freshman with off-the-charts potential.

"We were playing the No. 3 team in the nation, everybody said I looked like I was about to puke and I was taking the draw against the best draw specialist in the country," Cummings recalls. "I looked at my dad and he gave me two thumbs up. His look said, 'You're good.' "

Now it's a ritual, a gaze so fleeting it escapes all but the most mindful observer.

"He's my calming force," she says. "Whether I make a bad play or a good play, my dad is my rock."

"We have our moment," says Mike, whose position at Wells Fargo forces him to jet in from San Francisco or New York regularly to make home and road games. "When we thought we were going to play Loyola in the NCAA tournament, a couple of their alums jokingly threatened to stand up and hold a sheet in front of me."

If there's been a low moment for Cummings, it's been that loss to North Carolina, yet it set the tone for the rest of her career.

"Cathy brought me into her office September of my sophomore year and point-blank asked me, 'Why didn't you shoot that 8-meter in double overtime?'" Cummings says. She didn't have an answer.

"That will never happen again," Reese assured. "Next time you're in the national championship, you're going to stick it, and we're going to win it."

Cummings & Co. left no doubt the next year, defeating Syracuse 15-12 in a game played at Towson, less than an hour from College Park. The pressure of winning her first one in the Terps' back yard psyched her out. In addition to her dad, she checked in with her best buddy Corinne Etchison, an attacker for Georgetown.

"I have a way of getting in my own head," Cummings says. "I called Corrine and said, 'I need you to tell me I'm good at the draw.' ... She really was unsympathetic. Corinne tells it like it is, and that's what I needed."

Maryland scored the first five goals and dominated in a night Cummings refers to as "the best of my life." An official NCAA banner from the tournament is the dominant image in her living room.

Last year, Maryland and North Carolina met again for the title, and the Terps rallied from a three-goal halftime deficit to win again.

One final title would put a bow on all of it, says Cummings, who's eager to see what the next chapter of her life holds. She's hoping for a career in sports marketing, though she points to an LSAT book that sits on her bedroom chair.

She looks forward to having more time for country music concerts, indulging in Food Network recipes and awaits a post-graduation drive down Highway 1 in California with Etchison.

The stick won't be leaving her hand completely; Cummings will be part of the national team's tour to England this summer and hopes to make the roster for the 2017 World Cup.

"That would be the ultimate dream -- representing my country," she says.

For now, though, Cummings' eye is fixed on this NCAA tournament, yet she offers this perspective: "I'm going to look back in June and regardless of whether we win or lose, I will have had the best four years here I could have ever asked for."

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