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Volleyball takes the Gophers to the brink before falling short in 3-2 loss

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The Maryland volleyball team showed demonstrable progress and played their best match of the year but ultimately their best wasn't quite good enough as they dropped a five set match to Minnesota.

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Milestones can be marked in many different ways. Typically a win is the most common way to measure success in sports but, for the volleyball team at Maryland, it's possible that despite a 3-2 loss to the Minnesota Golden Gophers Wednesday night, the match will be remembered for a while as a step in building a program capable of competing in the Big Ten.

Entering the contest against Minnesota, the Terps had only won two sets in their last six matches against some of the best teams in the country. One of those sets was the previous match versus eleventh ranked Nebraska which provided a preview of Maryland's performance on Wednesday. The Gophers were a Sweet 16 team last year and are coached by a former men's and women's US National Team head coach in Hugh McCutcheon. Minnesota has struggled this season by their standards - entering the match 16-11 and 6-10 in the B1G - but they still have a high quality lineup and came into the match knowing they had to get hot to reach the NCAA Tournament.

First set - Surprise!

The first set was the most competitive of the night with six tie scores and two lead changes. Both teams played at a high level, trading kills though Maryland was plagued a bit by service errors. After the match, Maryland head coach Steve Aird said, "I'm okay with missed serves. We're at the bottom of the Big Ten. If we don't serve aggressively, we're not going to be able to play with people. We don't have enough balance."

The Terps started well racing out to an early 4-1 lead and maintaining that three to four point margin to nearly the midpoint of the set. Trailing 12-9, the Golden Gophers began to chip away eventually knotting the set at thirteen. For several points, the Maryland managed to keep Minnesota from edging in front trading points until a Terrapins' ball handling error finally let the Gophers take their first lead at 18-17.

This prompted Coach Aird to take his first timeout. A month ago in the match at Minnesota, Maryland would have likely watched as the more talented and experienced team asserted there will and pulled away to win the set. But this team has grown over that month.

Out of the timeout, Minnesota missed a serve and the Terrapins were prepared to take advantage of the opportunity. A kill by sophomore Chavi St. Hill and a Gopher ball handling error forced McCutcheon to call a timeout with the Terps leading 20-18. Now it was the Gophers' turn  to bounce back but, after a Maryland timeout with the teams tied at 21, the Terps rallied for four straight points behind two kills from senior Ashleigh Crutcher, a Minnesota error and a block by Crutcher and sophomore middle Ashlyn McGregor to capture the set 25-21.

Second set - Inconsistency and a missed opportunity

Just as the first set had, the second set began well for the Terps as they quickly took a 9-4 lead behind a sound distribution of their kills and and aided by two Gophers attack errors. Again, as they had in the first set, Minnesota began to chip away, led in their attack by junior outside Daly Santana and senior right side Adrianna Nora. And again they tied the score at thirteen.

When the Gophers edged ahead 14-13, Aird took a timeout. Both teams traded points until a run of 3 kills from Minnesota forced the second timeout from Maryland with the score at 16-21. The Terps got a kill from Crutcher to stop the run but the Golden Gophers scored the next two to go up by six. A kill by Catie Coyle and two aces from McGregor brought the Terps within three at 20-23 but the Gophers countered with two Santana kills and won the second set 25-20.

The next step in Maryland's growth will appear when they hold on to that early lead and win this set. In this situation, Minnesota goes into the break a much more comfortable squad with the score tied at one than they would have been had they trailed by two.

Third set - All Gophers

The third set looked like many this year for Maryland and like a return to the Terps' early season  woes. Minnesota jumped out to a big 14-8 lead. After the Terps first timeout, two McGregor kills helped cut the lead to four. From that point on, Santana took over with five kills to help Minnesota take off and win 25-14. For the set, the Gophers hit .414 with 15 kills and sided out at an unfathomable and unconscionable 93 percent winning 14 points on 15 Terrapins serves.

Fourth set - Passing a test

Often this season, this sort of domination would be the point that a young, short-handed Terps squad would not be able to muster much quality to extend a match. Wednesday, however, Maryland pushed past that point against a quality team. According to their coach, "At times tonight we played better volleyball than we have all year and the team continues to improve. It's a good effort from a team that hasn't mailed it in. The best part about tonight's match is that they could have folded like a tent after game three but they came out and fought and competed. When you lose a lot of matches, it's easy for the team to check out and not care and they've done the opposite. They've continued toimprove and grow"

In the fourth set, Maryland was the team making smart plays and watching their opponent make errors. For Aird, aces and errors are not the sole measure of the effectiveness of his team's serving. "Six (aces) and twelve (errors) would be a pretty good ratio for us," Aird said. "I would be okay with missing twice as many as you get aces if we're serving tough and putting pressure on them. From the outside looking in you say we missed 13 opportunities to score points but we had 13 blocks because a lot of times they're out of system and setting balls high and we got people in front of it."

At Nebraska, Ashlyn MacGregor went on a serving run that helped the Terps pull out the third set. In the fourth set, the serving power came from the team's shortest player, Samantha Higgenbothem. The Terps strung together three points on her serve that pushed them to a 9-4 lead for the third time in  four sets. Unlike the first two sets, Maryland maintained that edge out to 15-10.

Once again though, Minnesota began to chip away and after a kill by Santana and a service ace trimmed the lead to two at 19-17,  Aird called his first timeout of the set. The timeout calmed his squad and freshman Hailey Murray picked up the momentum stopping kill. She soon added another kill and assisted on a block with junior Emily Fraik to push the lead back to three at 22-19. Back to back Maryland errors to narrowed the lead to one and forced Aird to try to refocus his team by using his final timeout. This time it was Crutcher who stepped up and would not allow her team to lose coming up with a massive kill out of the timeout. Strong serving by Amy Dion allowed the Terps to pick up two of their 13 blocks closing out the set at 25-21 and pushing the match to a deciding fifth set.

Fifth set- Just not enough

The fifth and final set was a heartbreaker for Maryland. Having worked hard to push the match to a deciding set, it looked as the Terps had little left in their legs. After an early kill from Murray and a Gopher hitting error, Santana had four consecutive kills for Minnesota. Then the Gophers began shutting down the Terp offense with four blocks over the next seven points and pushed the Minnesota lead to 9-4. To slow things down, Aird took his final timeout. Maryland crawled back with two kills to close the lead to 6-9. That would be the end of the road however with the Gophers scoring the last 6 of seven points and finishing off Maryland 15-7.

Maryland hit .181 which is one of the highest levels they've reached in conference play and they added 13 team blocks. Crutcher led with 19 kills followed by Fraik with 14 kills and only three errors for a .297 hitting percentage. Murray bounced back from her recent struggles with six kills and a .308 hitting percentage. St. Hill, who  is still adjusting to the outside after spending most of her time as a middle, added five kills and hit in positive numbers. Amy Dion led the Terps with 17 digs and both Maryland's setters, Carlotta Oggioni and Whitney Craigo, hit the 20 assist mark with Craigo picking up 26 to lead the way.

Perhaps the most valuable player of the match was McGregor. Her production (6 kills, .545 hitting percentage, 2 aces and 5.5 blocks) was a critical factor in extending leads and taking pressure off of Crutcher and Fraik. If the Terps can replicate those numbers for the remainder of the season, the final three matches could be interesting.

Maryland will take on fourth ranked Penn State on Saturday at 7:00 pm in the Xfinity Center main arena. Fans are encouraged to bring nonperishable food items to donate to the UMD Campus Pantry benefiting members of the University community in need. The match can be seen on BTN2GO.