A new era has dawned in College Park and in few places will that be felt more than in the Terrapins' volleyball program. Maryland has moved to the Big Ten - the NCAA's deepest and toughest volleyball conference. Steve Aird is firmly entrenched as head coach of the volleyball program replacing Tim Horsmon who had a mostly unsuccessful tenure in his six seasons as head coach. Aird came to Maryland from Penn State who last season won their sixth national championship. In a short time, he and his staff have injected a new attitude and work ethic into the team in preparation for their entry into this brave new world - the season that begins August 29th.
There are two setters on the roster, Carlotta Oggioni and Whitney Craigo. Craigo is in her second season at Maryland having played in 11 matches toward the end of last season after sitting out much of the first half due to injury. The Italian born Oggioni is a sophomore transfer who played in 12 matches for Oregon State but who has extensive international experience and comes from a volleyball family. Both her parents played professionally. Based on experience, Oggioni projects as the starter with Craigo gaining opportunities as the season moves along. Junior Amy Dion is likely to serve as the emergency backup at setter.
Sophomore Ashlyn McGregor returns as the leading middle blocker from last season and looks to be joined by Chavi St. Hill as the other starter. McGregor comes off a quality freshmen year where she hit .244 and led the team in blocks per set with 1.33 good for fourth best in the ACC. St. Hill, a terrific athlete who can touch 10' 5.5", has been slowed by a late training camp injury will likely have to work herself back into shape but, once healthy, should find a spot in the regular rotation after appearing in 19 sets last season. Senior Catie Coyle, junior Kelsey Hrebenach and freshmen Hailey Murray round out the middles. Murray, who is from down the road in D.C., has been making a strong push in the preseason to get some time on the floor.
Adreene Elliott is the top attacker on the roster and quite possibly the most B1G ready player on the team. The 6'3" senior from North Carolina is fresh off an opportunity to train with the U.S. Collegiate National Team and will lead the Terps offensively. Senior Ashleigh Crutcher and junior Emily Fraik join Elliott as starters on the outside. Crutcher enters her final season at Maryland coming off second team All-ACC and honorable mention All-American accolades. When healthy, Crutcher averaged 3.95 kills per set. Ohio native Fraik appeared in every match last season and averaged 1.73 kills per set. Sophomore Alex Brown, who has been sidelined by injury during training camp will, when healthy, provide depth to an outstanding but thin roster of outside hitters. If Brown is unavailable, look for Hrebenach to move to the outside.
Dion returns to a more comfortable role as libero after injuries and transfers last season led her to assume setting duties. Illinois native Dion will lead a deep and hungry group of defensive specialists including seniors Kaitlyn King and Nicola Ribisi, junior Dani Bozzini, and freshmen Caroline Knooihuizen and Samantha Higginbotham. Knooihuizen suffered a high ankle sprain early in camp but Higginbotham has impressed the coaches with her effort and hustle.
It's best to look at the schedule in three phases - non conference, the first round of conference and the second round of conference. Testudo Times will provide in depth previews as key matches come closer.
The non conference slate has the Terps in Elon, NC to take on Elon, Liberty and San Jose State. The first tournament is potentially shaky for any team and perhaps more so for a team playing for the first time under a new coach and a new system. Still, they should head home with three victories. The following weekend Maryland heads south on the Beltway to take on Lehigh, East Tennessee State and George Mason in Fairfax, VA. Again a more physical Terps squad should be able to run their record to 6-0. The third tournament presents a trip to Boone, NC where the Terps will face Radford, Georgia State and Appalachian State. A third straight weekend on the road may catch up with them and open up the chance of an upset, possibly to the hosts Appalachian State. In their final out of conference matches the Terps will make the long flight to Seattle to take on fourth ranked Washington and the fifth ranked Trojans from USC. This will be a great primer to conference play as both teams will replicate the speed, power and quality that is reflected in the B1G. The non conference schedule is a great opportunity for the Terps to build confidence and they should be able to finish 8-3 or 9-2.
First round of conference play
After the west coast trip, the first half of B1G play offers up the following matches: away at #11 Illinois, Northwestern, #12 Minnesota, #6 Wisconsin and Rutgers. The Terps welcome Indiana, #8 Purdue, #16 Michigan State, Michigan and Rutgers to College Park. A challenging schedule but an excellent display of the pedigree and depth of the conference. The meetings with Rutgers, Indiana and Northwestern represent opportunities to gain conference victories. Two wins out of the first ten would be realistic and four or more would be an excellent start to Maryland's B1G journey.
Second round of conference play
The second half brings contests on the road with matches at Ohio State, #1 Penn State, #8 Purdue, #7 Nebraska and Iowa. Maryland wraps up their home schedule with Iowa, #7 Nebraska, #12 Minnesota, #1 Penn State and Northwestern. The second half is even more difficult than the first especially the brutal four road match stretch with successive weekend trips to Columbus, State College, West Lafayette and Lincoln. The two matches with Iowa and the last match versus Northwestern represent the best chances for the Terps to gain more conference wins.
Maryland is facing a daunting task moving into the B1G. It is arguably the best conference in the nation with the PAC 12 a very close second. Last season the B1G had 5 of the top 16 teams in RPI and sent two teams to the Final Four. The conference was led by national champion Penn State at number one who defeated fellow conference member Wisconsin in the title game. The 2014 American Volleyball Coaches Association preseason poll lists seven B1G schools in the top sixteen. As a comparison, during Maryland's last run of success in 2005, their RPI was 25. Last season Maryland's RPI of 134 would have ranked last in the Big Ten.
A .500 overall record would be an outstanding first season in B1G for Maryland. Achieving this would require 7 or 8 conference wins. An 8-12 conference record would have tied for eighth place with Michigan and Northwestern. The major challenge for the Terps will be surviving the grind of the B1G schedule. Eight B1G teams ranked in the top 20 in attendance. The atmosphere at most if not all venues will be a departure from the ACC.
Head Coach Steve Aird is uniquely qualified to lead the Terps into B1G. He has experience at multiple Division I schools and more importantly has witnessed and contributed to Penn State's B1G and national championships. He, his staff and the players seem willing for the challenge of proving the doubters wrong and having a great year.