The Rutgers Scarlet Knights volleyball squad came to the Pavilion at Xfinity Center to face the Maryland Terrapins in a contest between the last two winless teams in the Big Ten. In front of a crowd of 1,215, the Terps prevailed 3-2 in a nearly three hour five set battle that saw both teams display some quality moments and some plays that simply left fans shaking their heads and perhaps wanting to cover their eyes.
First Set - Slip Sliding Away
A pleasant surprise greeted Maryland fans when they saw senior outside hitter Ashleigh Crutcher take the court with the starters. Cutcher, who injured her ankle just over a week ago in the Terps' match at Minnesota, is Maryland's most potent offensive weapon and the player coach Steve Aird calls, "one who can swing us out of trouble." Said Crutcher afterward, "Coach told me, 'If you want it, you can go for it' and he's always pushing you to be the best that you can be. I wanted to do it for my team. I felt like I needed to be out there. As a senior, I thought why not go ahead and push myself. I'm just happy he allowed me to."
Though Crutcher wasn't involved much in the first set, the Terps broke their pattern of slow starts and opened up a 15-10 leading up to the first media timeout. To that point, Maryland was hitting an impressive .583 - a number that was bound to fall off as the set continued. Still, Maryland maintained that five point margin and led 18 - 13 when Rutgers called a timeout.
With a situation where the set was clearly within their grasp, the Terps fell into one of the maddeningly inconsistent stretches that have plagued them this season. Although he was referring to the entire match, in a rare moment of understatement, Maryland head coach Steve Aird said after the match, "I didn't think we played very well. I'm having a hard time getting them to finish games or play complete games all the way through."
Beginning with trouble passing and setting, combined with some poor decisions on the court and displaying a particular vulnerability to tips, the Terrapins not only let Rutgers back into the set, but saw them run off seven straight points to take a 20-18 lead. Maryland never recovered and Rutgers closed out the set 25-22. The Terps finished the set with a respectable .303 hitting percentage but they allowed Rutgers to hit .389.
Second set - Keep the Customer Satisfied
Though they built the lead quite differently than they had in the first set, the Terps once again opened a early lead. Following a sideout by Rutgers on the first point, Maryland ran off four straight to take a 4-1 lead. The visitors bounced back to close the gap to 4-3 but after a Maryland sideout, three straight service aces by Whitney Craigo opened a five point Terrapins lead and led to a Rutgers timeout.
Once again passing, setting, and some poor decisions, including a stunning moment where the Terps' middle blocker watched an errant service return that she should have put away simply drop at her feet, in one of the plays that allowed the Scarlet Knights to creep closer and stay in the set. Maryland staved off the big run but again saw their lead evaporate as Rutgers scored three straight to inch ahead for the first time in the set 21-20.
The Terps turned to freshman Hailey Murray, who would hit .400 for the set, to stanch the bleeding but they gave the lead right back to Rutgers. At this point, Crutcher began to assert herself. She scored smartly on a tip to knot the score at 22 and picked up a key solo block to put the Terps up by one. Two Rutgers attack errors wrapped up the second set by an identical 25-22 score as the first. However, this time, Maryland was on the long side of the total.
Third set- Song for the Asking
Both teams came out of the halftime break looking as though neither really wanted to win. The opening dozen points or so was a stretch of volleyball that is best forgotten. The set seemed to be available for the team that could gain some consistent play. Initially, that looked like it would be the Scarlet Knights. With the score tied at seven, Rutgers ticked off five consecutive points Before Murray once again came up with the momentum stopping kill.
This time it would be Maryland who would creep back into the set. It started when Crutcher picked up a kill to pull the Terps within two at 14-12. Some good serving by freshman Samantha Higgenbothem, continued the Terrapins' run and they knotted the score at fourteen.
With the score tied at 16, back to back blocks, first by Kelsey Hrebenach, then by the entire Maryland front line gave the Terps a lead they wouldn't relinquish. Maryland slowly pulled away and closed out the set 25-20 on a kill by Chavi St. Hill. Offensively, the set belonged to Crutcher and Murray who combined for eight of the Terrapins' thirteen kills and hit a combined .375
Fourth set - One Man's Cieling is Another Man's Floor
Oh, the sweet fruit of temptation. One set more and the Terps could wrap up their first Big Ten win. But nothing comes easily for this squad and they failed to take advantage of the opportunity. Competitively, the fourth set began like the third with neither team able to open any space over the first fifteen points or so.
After Maryland fell behind 10-8, they ran off five of the next six points and led 13-11 when, just as the Terps had in the third set trailing 9-13, Rutgers turned the set around with a five point run to move out to a 16-13 advantage. By this time, Maryland was defending the tip much more effectively.
"Like most sports, I think playing defense is 80 percent heart," Aird said. "I questioned their passion a little bit. I said those are easy balls. They shouldn't score. When people are tipping and rolling on you in this conference you should be sending them thank you notes. You've got to take care of the ball." On the other side, Rutgers was defending Murray and Crutcher more effectively as well. Though the pair picked up five kills, their combined hitting percentage dropped to .067 for the set.
Mainly behind some strong serving by Whitney Craigo, the Terps managed to claw their way back to tie the score at eighteen. However, with no one picking up offensively in support of Crutcher and Murray, the Scarlet Knights eventually closed out the set by an eerily familiar 25-20 score. After four sets, each team had scored exactly 92 points.
Fifth set - One Trick Pony
Because they are played to 15 rather than 25, fifth sets in volleyball are a risky proposition. One strong run by a team, perhaps triggered by a crowd raising kill or a controversial officiating decision, can often leave the trailing team with insufficient time to bounce back. The beginning of the fifth set appeared to offer just such an opportunity for the visitors.
With the serve and a 1-0 lead, Rutgers benefited from a judgment call by the head official who called setter Carlotta Oggioni for a back row attack and gave the Scarlet Knights a 2-0 lead. Whether it was the crowd, the call, or simply the determination of a senior to put the team on her shoulders and will a win, the point seemed to ignite the Terps.
Maryland won a sideout and with the score standing at 3-2 Rutgers, the set became the Ashleigh Crutcher show. Sparked by a great dig by Amy Dion, the Terps ran off six more points to grab control of the set at 8-3. Five of those six points came off Crutcher's strong right arm. The energy in what remained of the crowd built to a frenzy and Maryland seemed to feed off that as well. The Terps never let the Scarlet Knights pick up any momentum and nearly three hours after the evening started, Maryland wrapped up a 15-8 win fittingly closing out the match on Crutcher's 22nd kill of the night.
Setters Whitney Craigo and Carlotta Oggioni picked up 20 and 19 assists respectively while libero Amy Dion added seven. Emily Fraik led Maryland with 13 digs just ahead of 12 from Oggioni and 11 by Dion.
"I don't think we played very well," Aird said. "Winning beats losing, right? But if we would have lost, I'd still feel the same way. I think we have a lot to improve upon."
Aird's chance to see if his squad can improve upon those things comes when the two teams go at it again Saturday night with Rutgers playing the host. Maryland's next home match comes Halloween night when they host the Iowa Hawkeyes.