It's not unusual for sportswriters to invoke the terms "storybook" and "fairy tale" when a team or an individual athlete has a season that far exceeds either expectations or past performance. In that context, the term would apply to neither to the Maryland Terrapins volleyball team nor any single player. The Terps closed their first Big Ten season at the Xfinity Center Pavilion Saturday night with a sometimes unwatchable and sometimes thrilling five set win over the Northwestern Wildcats.
Maryland honored their four player senior class in a brief ceremony before Saturday night's volleyball match with Northwestern. The players, Nicola Ribisi, Kaitlyn King, Catie Coyle, and Ashleigh Crutcher, each received a small bouquet of flowers and a framed jersey prior to opening play. Then they took the court looking to end a nine match losing string.
The win was only Maryland's 10th of the season against 21 losses. Before the season, the Terrapins' headcoach set this as a floor to constitute a successful season. Their 3-17 record in the B1G placed them 13th in the conference - precisely where the Big Ten coaches predicted they would finish. Yet, for the team, and for one player in particular, the season ended in storybook fashion.
Chapter one - Playing it cool but coming up short
If the Terrapins felt any emotion on senior night, they channeled it into some quality early play picking up the first two points on a Northwestern attack error and a kill by Crutcher. After the Wildcats fought back to take a 7-6 lead, the Terps tied the score on a service error and won six of the next seven points that included winning the longest rally of the set. That rally featured two excellent digs by libero Amy Dion and it prompted a Northwestern timeout with Maryland leading 13-8.
When the teams returned to the court, a service error handed the momentum back to the visitors. The Wildcats closed to within two at 13-11 and Maryland coach Steve Aird called his first timeout of the set. Aird's timeout failed to stop Northwestern's momentum and the Wildcats knotted the score at 13 all. Catie Coyle's kill finally stopped the run. The Terps were able to slowly string together some points and again edge out to a three point lead at 18-15 prompting another Northwestern timeout.
Emily Fraik served an ace out of the timeout but the Wildcats' picked up a sideout kill to keep their team in striking distance. The Wildcats continued to chip away and after a Terps' hitting error, Maryland took their second timeout leading 20-19. Crutcher came up with clutch kill late to give Maryland a 22-21 lead.
Over the final third of the season, the Terrapins had become a more competitive squad - winning sets in surprising places such as at Ohio State and at Nebraska - and pushing Minnesota and Iowa to five sets. Yet for all those efforts, rather than manufacturing ways to win, Maryland found ways to come up just short. That pattern repeated at the end of the first set.
The Wildcats tied the score at 22 on a kill by Symone Abbott. Monica McGreal then rotated back to serve for Northwestern. McGreal dialed up the first of three consecutive aces to give the Wildcats the lead at 23-22. The second ace came on a ball that glanced off the tape and fell to the floor on Maryland's side. McGreal's jump serve continued to be a weapon and her third ace was as clean as the first and suddenly what had once been a winnable set ended with Maryland on the short end of a 25-22 score. Crutcher led Maryland with six kills for the set while fellow senior Catie Coyle registered one kill and shared in two blocks. As a team, Maryland hit .214 with 4 aces.
Chapter two - Finding a way
One other characteristic the Terps have displayed is effort. In some of those close matches, Maryland often had to find a way to dig down and bounce off the floor following a first set loss. With a small but partisan crowd urging them on, they found a way to do that again in set two.
The set got off to an auspicious start for the Terps with freshman Hailey Murray picking up a kill to give Maryland an immediate sideout and the 1-0 lead but the Wildcats responded immediately. The teams traded points with two early Maryland service errors helping Northwestern edge to a 5-4 lead.
After a sideout kill by Emily Fraik, Murray and Crutcher combined on a block to get the Terps back in front at 7-6. The squads traded service errors before a solo block by Ashlyn McGregor and an Amy Dion ace pushed Maryland's lead to three at 10-7. The Wildcats responded winning two long rallies ending the second with a block that narrowed the Terps lead to one.
A Northwestern service error returned Maryland's lead to two. Behind strong serves by Crutcher - one leading to an overpass and a kill from Coyle - the Terps extended the lead to four, leading to a Wildcat timeout trailing 14-10. Out of the timeout Coyle and McGregor combined for a big block to push the lead to five before a service error gave Northwestern a sideout.
Trailing 17-12, the Wildcats scored five of the next six points to close to within one at 18-17. Unlike the first set, however, the Terrapins would not yield the lead. The Terps won a sideout on Crutcher's 10th kill of the match and the senior combined with Ashlyn MacGregor for a block that returned the lead to three at 20-17 and prompted Northwestern to use their second timeout.
The teams traded points with the Terps reaching set point on another Crutcher kill that glanced off the tape. The situation got a bit tense as the Wildcats staved off two set points to pull within one at 24-23. In the middle of a long rally, the center referee spotted a double hit by Northwestern and the Terps had evened the match.
Crutcher added seven more kills for the set increasing her total to thirteen. For the set, Maryland hit .257 as a team with 14 kills. However, the key to the second set win was siding out at 75 percent.
Chapter three - Terps raise their play
Just as Coach Aird gave Kaitlyn King the opening serve of the match, he elected to give the opening serve of the third set to fellow senior Nicola Ribisi. Ribisi placed her serve well but Northwestern still won a sideout on the point and led for the only time in the set. Back to back kills by Crutcher and one by MacGregor on an overpass staked Maryland to an early 3-1 lead.
After the Wildcats tied the score at four, Coyle picked up back to back kills of her own to give the Terps a two point lead. Crutcher tallied another back row kill to extend the lead to 7-4. Though Northwestern won a sideout on the longest point of the match, Maryland's effort was apparent as nearly all six players flung themselves all over the court in an effort to keep the point alive.
The strong serving McGreal put her serve into the net and Aird sent Sam Higgenbothem in to serve for MacGregor. The freshman proved her coach's trust to be well founded as the Terps ran off three more points to open a fairly comfortable 11-5 lead.
Maryland continued their solid play not only keeping the visitors at bay but extending the lead to as much as eight at 18-10. At this point, just as they had in the first two sets, the Terps let the Wildcats chip away beginning with a four point run that cut the lead to 18-14. After a Terrapins sideout, Northwestern strung together another three point run two of which came behind McGreal's serving. After Aird used his final timeout, Coyle won the sideout with her fifth kill of the match and the Terps led 20-17.
The Terps led 21-18 as Whitney Craigo stepped back to serve. Chavi St. Hill picked up block and Craigo served back to back aces to give Maryland a 24-18 lead and their first set point. Unlike set two, this would be the only one Maryland needed as the Wildcats were called for a back row attack and the Terps had a 2-1 lead in the match.
Chapter four - The plot thickens as the bad Terps return
Inconsistent play has dogged Maryland for much of the season and at no time was it more evident than in Saturday's fourth set. After playing well in winning the second set, and exceptionally well in securing the third, The Terps looked like a lost squad from very early in the fourth.
The teams traded the first six points but then the Wildcats went on eight point run during which Maryland did virtually nothing right. The Terrapins' futile play continued as Northwestern extended the lead from 11-3 to 17-5. Knowing that the set had slipped away and that he would need to rely on them in the fifth set, Aird elected to rest both Crutcher and Fraik. The Terps would get no closer than eight as the Wildcats evened the match with a startlingly easy 25-14 set win.
Chapter five - Not just a happy ending, a perfect ending
When Ashleigh Crutcher left the fourth set, she had 20 kills for the match. Her closest teammate, Emily Fraik had nine. But Crutcher had borne the weight of this team for most of the season. So heavy was that burden that entering the match, she had 361 kills. Fraik was second with 217. Despite missing 13 sets due to injury, Crutcher had over 100 more attacks than her closest teammate.
Crutcher's career high of 28 kills came in a match against Clemson in her sophomore season. If she could equal that number, she would tie 2013 graduate Mary Cushman for fourth on Maryland's all-time list.
In a fifth set that is played to 15, the Terps got out to an early 4-1 lead behind kill number 21 by Crutcher coupled with an overpass kill by MacGregor and a block by St. Hill. Despite putting forth great effort, the Terps again squandered their prosperity and the Wildcats closed to within one at 5-4 and evened things up at seven all on a play that featured a spectacular dig by Northwestern libero Caroline Niedospial. Northwestern followed that with a block against Fraik to take their first lead since scoring the first point of the set.
The teams traded points and timeouts. Northwestern called timeout after a kill by St. Hill gave Maryland a 10-9 lead and Aird responded with a timeout of his own when the Wildcats rallied to go ahead 11-10. It fell to Crutcher to get the Terps even. Maryland took a 12-11 lead on a back row kill by Fraik ending a point on which Northwestern made two spectacular digs on huge swings by Crutcher.
Trailing 12-11, Northwestern used their final timeout. The game's closing points, would be a battle of skill and will between Northwestern's Symone Abbott, who would lead the Wildcats in kills with 18 on the night, and Maryland's Ashleigh Crutcher who would try to leave Maryland with their first conference win against a traditional Big Ten school.
Round one: Abbott picks up the kill out of the timeout - 12 all.
Round two: Crutcher's overpowering swing knocks Northwestern's Abbie Kraus to the floor - 13-12. Kill 24 for Crutcher.
Round three: Carlotta Oggioni serves for Maryland. Maryland digs Abbott's first swing. Northwestern does the same to Crutcher. Maryland digs Abbott again. Crutcher swings and the block attempt goes wide - 14-12. Kill 25.
Round four: The Wildcats get a good pass off the serve. Abbott smashes the ball between Fraik and Dion - 14-13. Timeout Maryland.
Round five: Taylor Tashima serves for Northwestern. Maryland's Amy Dion makes a bad pass that Oggioni runs down and bumps to Crutcher behind the ten foot line. Crutcher takes a big swing. Tashima dives and makes a great dig but overpasses the ball...
Ashleigh Crutcher's career has been a gift to Maryland volleyball fans and on the final swing of her career, she left Maryland with one final gift - the gift of knowing that they can beat a traditional Big Ten school. It happened like this:
After her first swing, Crutcher saw the overpass and took two powerful steps to the net. For the 66th time that night she uncorked her powerful right arm and this time pounded the ball down the line onto the B1G logo for kill number 26. As the ball hit the floor, the crowd erupted in cheers and the senior erupted in tears. Maryland's senior night ended in storybook fashion with a 15-13 win in the fifth set over their first traditional Big Ten opponent on the on the final swing by their senior star.