The cold hard truth of B1G volleyball is that every match is a challenge. There simply are no easy nights especially on the road. Coming off a season in which they finished 13-19 overall and 5-15 in the ACC, graduating their all time leader in digs, and turning over the entire coaching staff, only a fan swaddled in layers of unbridled optimism would have expected Maryland to succeed in this buzz saw of a league. This weekend the Maryland Terrapins learned two more hard lessons about what it will take to compete in the Big Ten instructed by straight set losses at the #23 Minnesota Golden Gophers and the #6 Wisconsin Badgers.
A trip to the Twin Cities
On Friday night, the Terps faced off against the Golden Gophers in Minneapolis. The first set was as bad as Maryland has played in quite some time with Minnesota siding out at 75% and hitting .429 while the Terps hit negative .094 (more errors than kills). Ashleigh Crutcher led Maryland with two kills but set one was all Gophers, 25-15.
The second set was a major improvement with Maryland holding leads at 10-6 and 17-14 before Minnesota could tie the score at 22 all. The Golden Gophers scored the next two to earn set point but the Terps fought back and two Maryland kills tied the match again at 24-24. However, Maryland's margin of error is is quite small and the Gophers unfortunately pulled away with a kill and a block to win set two, 26-24. For the set, Maryland outhit the Gophers .314 to .306 but couldn't finish it off. Crutcher added six more kills to lead the Terps.
The third and final set had two pieces of bad news for Maryland. First and foremost, after the break, Minnesota came out with a renewed sense of purpose and sprinted to a 14-9 lead that they later extended to 18-11. They played like a relaxed squad, never feeling any pressure from the Terps, and closed things out comfortably 25-17 to win set three and the match. The other bad news came midway through the set when Ashleigh Crutcher landed on the foot of a Minnesota player and injured her ankle. The senior outside hitter left the floor in obvious pain and did not return. Her absence is a significant loss to a young and shorthanded Terps squad.
Splash down in Madison
Maryland headed south and east to face an even stiffer challenge when they had to take on #6 Wisconsin in front of 6000 home fans on Sunday afternoon. The Badgers were coming off a sweep versus Rutgers on Friday. At full strength Wisconsin would pose a tough test for anyone in the country who came into their gym in Madison. But for the now very young Terrapins, coming into the contest without your top two attackers, Adreene Elliott - who was lost for the season to knee surgery last month, and Crutcher whose status is uncertain, the match-up became just too much for Maryland to overcome.
In a reiteration of a frequent pattern this season, the Terps got off to a slow start. In the first set a focused Wisconsin squad opened early leads of 10-4 and 16-9. Eventually, Maryland would drop an uncompetitive 25-14 set. Junior Emily Fraik led in kills with two while the Terps hit .095.
The second set showed some improvemed play with the Terps remaining within reach of Wisconsin early. Hoping to keep things close, head coach Steve Aird took their first timeout at 11-7. The Badgers made a run to force Maryland's second timeout at 17-11 and ultimately finished set two at 25-17. Fraik added four more kills to take her total for the match to six to lead the Terps.
The third set was played in a pattern nearly identical to the second with Maryland staying close until 14-11 and again at 19-14. Late kills by Kelsey Hrebenach and Whitney Craigo had the Terps within five but Wisconsin pulled away winning six of the final nine points to finish the match 25-17. Fraik led Maryland in kills with 10 and Hrebenach, seeing her first extended action in some time, added six kills for the Terps
If there was a stretch of the schedule where the Terps might have been able to exhale and pick up some wins in the conference, it would be the one that starts Friday night at 6:00 pm when Maryland will host the Michigan State Spartans in advance of the Super B1G Maryland Madness. Michigan State and Sunday's opponent, Michigan, are among the few B1G teams not currently ranked in the top 25. But neither is particularly weak with RPIs of 33 and 44 respectively.
The Terps follow those contests with back to back games against Rutgers and Iowa - teams that are comparable to Maryland in the current hierarchy of Big Ten volleyball. However, without their two senior leaders and best players at the season's outset, Maryland will have to look to some of their younger players to step up and raise their level of play if they are to grab that elusive first conference win as a member of the Big Ten.