"We just played a match in front of 6,000 people against the defending national champions and it was a match," Maryland head volleyball coach Steve Aird said after Saturday's 25-15, 25-18, 25-14 loss to the Penn State Nittany Lions. (Clearly Aird is better at coaching volleyball than he is at estimating crowd size. The actual attendance was 4,522.) "I think they're better than we are at every position but we didn't fold and we didn't back down from it and, for me, that's a huge step forward in building a program."
First set - Even to start but all Penn State to finish
For the first nine points the Terps not only went toe to toe with the Nittany Lions but actually held a 5-4 lead. The visitors then exerted their dominance with a six point run that Maryland finally ended on a kill by Hailey Murray. Penn State answered immediately to go ahead 11-6 on a kill by Ali Frantti. But the Terps hung around. Four times over the next 14 points, Maryland came as close as three. The last of those came off a kill by Emily Fraik to win a sideout that pulled the Terps to within 17-14.
The Lions once again found Frantti to ignite a run of three straight and open a 20-14 lead. Maryland won a sideout on a kill by Murray but a service error by Fraik gave Penn State a sideout and brought the ever dangerous Micha Hancock to the service position. Hancock, who has perhaps the best jump serve in the NCAA, and who leads the country in aces per set led the visitors to another four point run and closed the set at 25-15.
Penn State's fans treat Hancock's serves as though they are bombs - imitating a fuse (Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh) as she goes into her toss and adding the explosion (BOOOOM!) when she makes contact. Amy Dion, who was the target of many of those Hancock bombs said after the match, "She has one of the top serves in the country. At some point like her last two serves in the second and third sets, you clap and you roll the ball back and say, 'Hey, nice job and we'll try for the next one.' But I don't think we ever backed down from it and you play it like it's defense."
Second set - A small victory
The Nittany Lions rolled through the end of the first set winning eight of the last nine points with four of those coming behind Hancock's serve. They opened the second set on the same sort of roll winning a sideout on the first point of the second set and sending Hancock, as they typically do, to open the serving for the Lions. By the time she hit a serve long, the Terps trailed 6-0. When the lead extended to 8-1, it looked as though Penn State was simply going to devastate Maryland.
But then a strange thing happened. A kill by Ashleigh Crutcher gave the Terps a sideout at 9-3. Carlotta Oggioni stepped in to serve. Two Penn State errors and kills by Ashlyn MacGregor, Fraik, and Crutcher got the crowd buzzing as the Terps clawed to within 9-8.
Said Aird, "We were down 8-1 after Micah went on a run and trust me that's happened. Trust me, she does that historically. And I don't care if you're the number four team in the country or a team that's just getting their legs. For me, it was about being down 8-1 and they didn't quit and we came back and were within two at 10-12. It's those little victories within games. Knowing what I know about developing championship teams, those are the things and traits that you have to have before you flip it. So it's not that you come in and you get a bunch of kids together who have never played at this level and you win. It's all of these little maturing, mini-battles within the war that we're starting learn, and starting to flip and improve. The kids are bought in."
Unfortunately for Maryland supporters, Aird also noted that Maryland, "...doesn't have the same level of skill or physicality and anyone who watched the match can see that. But that's not the point. The point is they don't back down. That makes me proud about the evening."
The Terps hung around, staying within three or four points fairly deep into the set - staying as close as three to 16-19 - before the Nittany Lions were truly able to exert their superior skill and physicality and close out a 25-18 set win.
Third set - Too much strength and skill
In a set that, to some degree mirrored the first, Maryland stayed with Penn State early on. Though the Terps never led, they were within one at 6-7. The Nittany Lions won 10 of the next 11 points with six of those coming while Hancock was serving. Holding a 10 point lead at 17-7, Penn State was able to put themselves essentially on cruise control and close out the 25-14 set.
Some editorial comments
A casual fan looking at the scores of these sets, might conclude that the match was decidedly one sided. In some respects, it was. In others, not so much. Maryland fans need to keep these things in mind: Penn State is the defending national champions and are playing like they have every intention of repeating that feat. They have not lost a set in more than a month - a period that spans 11 matches against some of the best competition in the country.
Including the three matches they've lost, Penn State averages 24.6 points per set while their opponents average 16.8 points per set. In Penn State's 28 wins, their opposition has averaged 16.02 points per set. Maryland averaged 15.7 points per set in Saturday's match.
Penn State simply has too many weapons. After Saturday's match, Haleigh Washington was hitting .506, Nia Grant .468, Aiyanna Whitney .390, and Ali Frantti .316 for the season. By contrast, Murray leads the Terps hitting .237 with Crutcher second at .187. The Terps held Whitney to .350 and completely stifled Grant holding her to -.091. Because they have options like Washington, who hit .667 in the match and Frantti who was not far behind at .600, the Nittany Lions could simply turn to other offensive forces to compensate for Maryland stopping or slowing two of their better hitters.
There were a number of points in the match when Maryland played so hard they brought the crowd out of their seats. Aird said, "That's where we're headed. We're a year away, two years away from not only playing in some of those matches but winning some of those matches. Will it be a Penn State or a Nebraska? We're taking games off Nebraska (#11 in the country). We're taking games off Minnesota. We're taking games off Purdue. And we've been here eight months. The moral victory thing, I hate it because I hate losing. But there were so many things I loked at tonight and thought, man, we're getting closer."
Perhaps it's best summed up by some texts I exchanged immediately after the match with the mother of Terrapins athlete in another sport I cover and who had come to watch, "That was incredibly skilled and FUN volleyball." I responded, "Yes. And the kids played hard." And she said, "Yes indeed I agree wholeheartedly."
The Terps travel to Iowa Wednesday night for a rematch with the Hawkeyes. They will conclude their first season under Coach Aird and his staff Saturday when they host Northwestern on senior night. Will a B1G crowd inspire the Terps to close the season with a win? As my Mom always said about chicken soup, "It couldn't hoit."