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Volleyball drops two on the road in a season defining weekend

After playing - and losing - the match of the year against North Carolina, the Terps closed out their 2013 campaign with four set losses at Virginia Tech and Virginia.

If it seems like it’s been a while since I’ve given some love the Maryland’s volleyball team, it’s true for a number of reasons. First, the squad has been on the road for three matches and their recent home matches conflicted with the start of basketball season and the ACC field hockey tournament. Second, they’ve been mired in a slump that has killed any chance for postseason play while several of the other sports I cover have been involved in conference and NCAA tournaments. Third, I had a visit from my “adopted” Aussie daughter Erin that occupied much of my time. So apologies to supporters, friends, and families of the volleyball squad.

I thought I should give the team one last hurrah with a recap of possibly the most exciting volleyball match at the Comcast Center Pavilion in three or four years. Before I go on to that, Let’s take a quick look at how the season ended for the Terps. It’s possible that the last two matches could serve as a microcosm for the season. Both at Virginia Tech and in the last match at Virginia (I attended this one on my way back from Atlanta) Maryland got off to a good start winning the first set. And in each of those matches, the Terps dropped the final three sets.

The Terps started the season 8-1 before a tough road trip for a Tournament at Michigan preceded by an injury to Ashleigh Crutcher triggered a three match losing skid. Maryland seemed to be righting the ship winning two of the first three matches in a four game homestand to move to 10-5 and 2-1 in the ACC. But a five set loss to Virginia Tech started a downward slide from which the Terrapins never recovered. They dropped eight of their last nine and finished the season with an overall record of 13-19 and 5-15 in the ACC registering the fourth losing season in coach Tim Horsman’s six years at Maryland. Overall under Horsman the Terps have yet to have a winning record in league play though they did manage a 10-10 finish in 2010.

A pair of Terrapin seniors did reach some career milestones. Mary Cushman recorded 390 kills on 1100 attacks putting her in fourth and second place respectively on Maryland’s all-time leaders in those categories. Libero Sarah Harper became the first player in Maryland volleyball history to record 500 or more digs in two seasons. The senior from Charlottesville followed up her season record 569 digs as a junior with 549 in her final campaign occupying the top two spots for digs in a season. She also became Maryland’s all-time leader in a home match against Wake Forest passing Nicole Lantagne. Harper finished her career with 1,744 digs.

The twelfth ranked (23rd RPI) North Carolina Tar Heels came to College Park for the season’s final home game Sunday November 24 and I was able to squeeze it in before heading across campus to watch soccer. Despite dropping their fourth straight match and second consecutive five setter, this was, without question, the most exciting home match of the year and possibly the most exciting match in two or three years so I’m going to try to give it a good long go.

Although we couldn’t know it at the time, the first point of the first set established the tone of the match. Carolina had the serve and kept the Terps scrambling through a very long point in which both teams made several strong digs before the Tar Heels finally found an opening for the kill.The squads traded the first ten points with Maryland always coming from behind to tie. With the score tied at five, UNC ran off four straight to edge out to a 9-5 lead before a kill by Adreene Elliott stopped the bleeding. Amy Dion rotated in to serve and Maryland scored back to back points to close the gap to one before the Heels won a sideout. Another long point followed and despite two great Carolina digs, Dion was able to set Ashleigh Crutcher for an emphatic kill that earned Maryland a sideout. Following the first of Maryl Cushman’s three serves, Crutcher and Ashlyn MacGregor combined to do what the Terps do best block an attempted kill. The Terps finally edged in front 11-10 on an exchange at the net that included tipped balls and a joust (when players from opposing teams simultaneously handle the ball above the net trying to push it to the other side). However, the visitors came back to retake a 12-11 lead. Crutcher put an end to that with a spike of such force that Carolina’s dig soared up into the rafters of the Comcast Center Pavilion. This ball remains playable but the Heels couldn’t return it. As at the beginning of the set, neither team could gain any real advantage with seven of the set’s nineteen ties coming over the next twenty points. Following a solo block by MacGregor that evened the score at 22, Dani Bozzini rotated in to serve. A solo block by Emily Fraik and a block that Fraik and MacGregor shared gave the Terps two set points. This time Carolina responded winning three straight to earn a set point of their own the last coming despite a spectacular dig by Bozzini. Crutcher’s kill staved off the first set point but as at the beginning of the set, the Terps now found themselves playing from behind and UNC ultimate pulled out the overtime win by a 29-27 final score.

In the second set, UNC looked like the top tier team they are reputed to be though the Terps kept things close until late in the set. The Tar Heels opened the set on a 3-0 run but the Terps answered to tie the score at three. Trailing 6-4, Maryland went on another three point run that featured back to back blocks to edge in front at seven to six. From that point, neither squad could gain any real advatage with seven of the set’s eleven ties and two of the six lead changes coming in the stretch where the score ran from 7-6 Maryland to a 17-15 Terrapin lead. This is the point where Carolina took control of the set. The Heels ran off six straight points either powering through or tipping over Maryland blocks. A kill by Kelsey Hrebenach stemmed the tide but not for long. Leading 21-18, UNC ran off four of the next five points to close out the set by a comfortable 25-19 margin.

North Carolina looked to be calm, comfortable and in control coming out of the break. They opened a quick 2-0 lead and after the Terps rallied to tie the score at three immediately built the back to two at six to four. But Maryland wouldn’t quit and they rallied to tie the score at 6,7, and 8 before taking their first lead of the set at nine to eight. Trailing 10-9, a block by Fraik and MacGregor lit a fire under the Terps and they ran off five more points as UNC seemed a bit intimidated by Maryland’s blocking prowess. The Terrapins continued to dominate play after the Tar Heels won a sideout at 15-11. A three point run followed UNC’s sideout including the point that made the score 18-11 Maryland that featured back to back blocks in which the Terps covered the net from post to post and brought the crowd to their feet. (Note: statistically blocks are only credited when they result in a point for the blocking team. I just can think of no other way to describe how this particular sequence unfolded.) After the Terps stretched the lead to eight at 21-13, the almost unthinkable happened. The visitors ran off seven straight points to close to 21-20 and make a competitive set out of what should have been an easy Terrapin win. Coach Tim Horsman called his second and final timeout and the Terps finally rediscovered their blocking mojo as Hrebenach and Elliott combined to stop the Tar Heels run. Now the set was truly in doubt but Maryland managed to keep North Carolina at bay by always serving from the lead and a solo block by MacGregor gave the Terps their first set point. Carolina responded with two straight to take the score to 25-24 and a serve to close the match. But the next ball was “touched by the Crutch” as Ashleigh Crutcher’s emphatic kill saved the set and the match. UNC then turned the pressure back to Maryland with a sideout and another match point but their attack went long trying to hit over the Terrapins’ block. Though Kelsey Hrebenach got the kill that pulled Maryland to set point, it was the Terps defense with three great digs on an extended point that set things up and had the crowd screaming their approval. Fittingly, the set ended on a block by Hrebenach and Elliott for a 28-26 win that extended the match by at least one more set.

The third set win and the long run in the middle of that set energized the Terps and they started the fourth with another block and a kill by Ashlyn MacGregor after spectacular diving dig by Amy Dion to establish an early 2-0 lead in a set that had no lead changes. After Carolina reached the only tie of the set at four all, Maryland ran off five straight points in a stretch that included strong serving by Julia Anderson and two more blocks. Unlike the third set, one the Terps had an apparent stranglehold on the fourth, they never let the Tar Heels back in the set. Each time UNC appeared to be on the verge of gaining momentum, someone for Maryland stepped up with a big play like Sarah Harper’s great dig with the score at 14-10 that stopped a Carolina mini run or the solo block by Hrebenach that followed a Terrapin service error that extended the Terrapins’ lead to eight at 19-11. Mary Cushman’s sideout kill at 23-16 gave the Terps their first set point. The crowd began to feel a bit uneasy when the Tar Heels won a sideout followed by two more points to close the gap to five. The exhalation of relief came on a Carolina service error giving Maryland the set at 25-19 and necessitating the always tense fifth set.

This time, Carolina grabbed the early advantage scoring three of the first four points. After a good pass on the service return, Amy Dion made a perfect set to Ashleigh Crutcher and the junior blasted an emphatic kill down the center of the Tar Heels defense that made the crowd erupt. Another Crutcher kill evened the score and after two UNC points she responded again with a thunderous blast that allowed the Terps to pull even at five all. Soon, Cushman and Elliott got into the act with high powered kills that seemed inspired by their teammates. Elliott’s second kill came after a diving dig by Crutcher 9-7 lead at a time in the set when a two point margin be crucial. However, UNC came back to tie the score at nine and the teams traded the next ten points. With the score tied at fourteen, Anderson set Elliott giving Maryland their first match point and putting them on the verge of both a remarkable comeback and a huge upset. Carolina responded by winning a sideout on a very close ball that looked to many in the partisan crowd to have landed in the court rather than out. The pattern repeated over the next six points with the Terps winning a sideout to reach match point and the Heels responding with a sideout to save it. The pattern ended when Carolina held serve to go up 19-18 and, despite a Terrapins timeout to try to break the server’s rhythm, the Tar Heels held serve again to win the set and the match.