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Aird era opens with three wins - a closer look at volleyball's weekend

A new era in Maryland volleyball began Friday and Saturday. Though the Terps came away with three wins, they will need to improve in many areas if they expect to compete in the Big Ten.


Those who watched Maryland's football team demolish James Madison 52-7 on Saturday know that, despite the lopsided win, some legitimate concerns remain for the Terps as they approach game two and, more importantly, their first B1G season. In a similar vein, although Maryland's volleyball squad left North Carolina with a perfect 3-0 start to their season, the Terps were plagued by inconsistent play and were tested more than expected.

The Good

Generally Speaking

The obvious good news is that the Terps came out of the weekend undefeated picking up three wins. As Terrapins' head coach Steve Aird said afterward, "It was three matches on the whole that I hoped we'd be able to compete and the intent was that we'd come home with three wins and we did and I was happy that we did. The good news is that we found ways to win matches."

According to the coach, each of the three matches presented a different set of challenges. "Elon was the first match of the year with no scouting report and it took us a little while to get things going but I was happy that we closed it out and ground out a win," he said afterward.

Liberty has "a couple kids who can play and they have a transfer from Hawaii who was all conference. That's a team that I'm sure is going to have a pretty good season. We were flat in the beginning of the match and just didn't play clean volleyball. But our team battled back and found a way to make it work. They found a way to win a close match and that was good."

"San Jose State was unique because we didn't play well in the first game and just eked it out. In the second game I don't think we played great but we were clean. We didn't have many errors and got to stretch the score on them a little bit. In the third game we were behind for much of the game but then we took a couple of brave swings and won a tight game."

Aird was pleased with his team's competitiveness and heart particularly in rallying from two sets down to grab a win over Liberty in five sets. Despite some of the problems, Aird said, "I can be a bit happy about the comeback against Liberty in that it shows heart and courage and that they want to compete. The good news for me is that the team found ways to win matches. The downside is I didn't think we played great volleyball. I've seen us play at a higher level in the practice gym. But it's a good sign to do what we just did which is find a way to win when you're not playing great."

The freshmen

After a nervous start in her first college match, Haley Murray registered 11 kills and led the Terps with a superb .529 hitting percentage in the comeback win against Liberty. Though that percentage dropped off in the final match against San Jose State, she still managed a respectable .273 hitting percentage. (For the uninitiated, hitting percentage is calculated by subtracting the number of attack errors [E in the box score] from the number of kills [K] and dividing that by the number of total attacks [TA]. In the Liberty match, Murray had 11 kills and 2 errors on 17 attempts. 11-2 = 9 and 9/17 = .529. If you have 3 kills, 6 errors on 11 attacks, you end with a negative hitting percentage 3-6 = -3 and -3/11 = -.272.)

Sam Higginbothem, the other Terrapins freshman to see action finished the weekend with 19 digs and 3 service aces including the game winning fifteenth point to close out the win against Liberty. Aird had this to say about his freshman duo, "Haley, as a freshman led us with some nice numbers against Liberty but you shouldn't have to ask a freshman to carry the kind of load we asked her to carry. The same is true defensively for Sam. Those two played as well as anyone on the team for the whole stretch of the weekend.

"One trait she and Sam share is that they're relatively fearless. Without Sam we might not win any of those matches this weekend because of her ability to serve, track down balls and just compete. Haley is a talented athlete who will keep getting better."

The not so good

Blocking and defense

Despite an overall losing record in 2013, Maryland was the nation's fifteenth best blocking team averaging 2.82 blocks per set. On the opening weekend, the Terps didn't block particularly well. They finished with 20 blocks in the 12 sets played for a 1.67 per set average. Aird took responsibility for that saying, "The blocking on the weekend wasn't very good and that's on me because it's an area I focus on in practice. Despite some missed reads, we had a lot of opportunities to block balls and we didn't. We were around the ball a lot we just didn't finish. But I think that will still be one of our strengths and it's going to get a lot better as the season goes on."

As for the overall defense, the coach felt, "Defensively, we were okay on the scramble plays and hard hit balls we were okay. It's the easy balls and the easy reads where good teams will take care of the easy balls 100 percent of the time. We're just not there yet."

Passing and setting

One focus among the coaches in Maryland's preseason training has been to improve the Terps' passing. (Remember, a team is allowed a maximum of three controlled touches - usually a pass to the setter [1], who sets the ball for a hitter [2], who then makes an attempt at a kill [3]. A deflection off an attempted block is not considered a controlled touch.) The staff assigns a grade of one, two, or three to each pass with three being considered perfect. The better the first pass, the better the opportunity for the setter to make a good set for the hitter. The goal of the staff is to have the Terps passing at a grade of 2.25 or higher.

The Terps hit a paltry .187 for the weekend though that is weighed down by their .104 hitting percentage in the first match. (Top hitting teams will hit above .275.) They improved in the Saturday matches but still combined for only .236 in those two contests. The erratic result, said Aird, was due to, "Our first touch and our passing which was okay but certainly not exceptional. Although that makes it more challenging for Carlotta (Oggioni), I thought she was very average at times and that makes it tougher on the hitters."

Explaining further, he added, "We have a couple of players who can take a full swing but the reality is that the ball needs to be in a good spot. We don't have a lot of kids who can play out of system and make up for the set being just okay. When both the first pass and the set are just okay, we will struggle on offense. I want the team to take big swings but we didn't show the best judgement and as a result we had too many unforced errors with people trying to do too much."

Hesitating and playing not to lose

Another point of emphasis through the preseason for Aird and his staff has been that they want a squad that plays freely and loosely. They want their squad to attack to win matches or, if they lose to lose aggressively. He said, "There was some hesitation and some nerves. Right now, they're playing too much not to lose. They're too worried about making mistakes and I'm the last one who's worried about that. I want them to let themselves go and just play."

It's worth noting as we get to know Coach Aird, that he is not inclined to be the sort of coach who will praise his team effusively. He acknowledged as much telling me, "I'm upset that they weren't ready to compete right away (against Liberty). I think they have a different gear that they didn't show in the last three matches. The good news is that I think we can be a lot better in the next few weeks. The bad news is that I'd hoped we be further along. The coach in me always wants to get better. My job isn't to make them feel good it's to get them to be better volleyball players."

Injury report

Three Terps didn't make the trip to North Carolina. Staying behind in College Park were freshman Caroline Knooihuizen, who injured her ankle and has been wearing a boot since early in training camp, and sophomores Alex Brown and Chavi St. Hill. St. Hill is receiving treatment for tendinitis and could return to the lineup as soon as next weekend's match at George Mason while Brown has a shoulder injury that has limited her practice time. The time for her return is still uncertain.

Senior outside hitter Ashleigh Crutcher injured her shoulder diving for a ball in the second set of Saturday morning's match against Liberty. The extent of the injury won't be known until she undergoes an examination on the team's return to College Park.

The Terps will make the short trip out to Fairfax this weekend to take on Lehigh on Friday night before facing East Tennessee State and host George Mason on Saturday.