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Volleyball improves to 6-0 but still has a long way to go

Maryland volleyball has opened a season at 6-0 for the first time since 2005 which was, coincidentally, the last time the Terps reached the NCAA Tournament. However, The Terps haven't exactly blown through the softest part of their schedule and face a steep climb.

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A win is a win. And six consecutive wins is a nice way to open the season. But in sports, there are wins and there are wins. Yes, the Terrapins' volleyball squad is 6-0 for the first time since the 2005 season. And yes, all six of those wins have come on the road. But sometimes a deeper look reveals a hiding truth.

The combined record of those teams (excluding their losses to Maryland) is 14-22 and only one of them, Elon, has played a ranked opponent losing in three relatively contested sets to seventh ranked Purdue. So, over a stretch of their schedule where the Maryland should have gotten several wins, they've only managed to get wins.

This weekend, the Terps will again travel to North Carolina where they will play this time in a tournament hosted by Appalachian State. In their opening game, Maryland faces 5-2 Radford who counts Cal Berkeley among their five wins. California was among the "others receiving votes" category in the first week's coaches poll. Saturday morning the Terrapins will face the 2-5 Georgia State Panthers a team against whom Maryland should get a win. Saturday night, the Terps will play the host school. Appalachian State is currently 7-0 with a win over number 24 Louisville.

And then it gets even tougher. Maryland travels to the west coast to face fifth ranked Washington and sixth ranked USC - both undefeated. The Terrapins then open Big Ten Play at ninth ranked Illinois, whose only loss is on the road to soon to be top ranked Stanford, and 5-1 Northwestern whose only loss is also on the road at fifteenth ranked San Diego.

Here's how Maryland coach Steve Aird sees it:

"I'm happy they found ways to win. I'm happy for the program. I think we've got some really tough matches coming up in a week and then we play two of the top five teams in the country the following week. But I'm a realist. We've done some nice things and we found a way to win but I know what's coming.  Against USC and Washington and once we get into league play, there's going to be a lot less time to react.  So far if a kid has gotten an open look and we're around the ball we've been able to get some digs but the game's going to move much faster and the opponents are going to be much more physical."

A problem of maturity

In their first match against Liberty Friday night, Maryland, continuing a somewhat worrisome early season pattern, got off to a slow start dropping the first game to Lehigh before rallying to take three straight games. Saturday morning against East Tennessee State it looked as though the Terps had solved that problem as they raced out to an early ten point lead in the first set and cruised to a 25-16 win. For the set, Maryland had a very respectable 62 percent sideout percentage. (This is simply the number of points won divided by the number of the opponent's serves but it is one of the most critical stats in a volleyball match. In this set, Maryland won 10 points on 16 ETSU serves 10/16 = .62.) In the second set, their sideout percentage dropped to 40 percent and they lost the set 25-18.

This new pattern continued Saturday night against George Mason. Maryland had a blistering 71 percent sideout percentage and cruised to an easy 25-13 win in the opening set. (We can use set and game interchangeably.) They also had an impressive .345 hitting percentage. Once again, a different team seemed to take the floor for the second set. The Terps fell behind 10-2 and 13-4 to open the game. After a dominating opening set, the best teams find a way to extend their domination and win by even more lopsided scores. If Maryland is to compete with the teams coming up on their schedule, they and their coach need to find the proper medication to cure this schizophrenia.

"Part of it is maturity. Any team at this level - if you beat them handily - it's a fresh game. It's a five game match. You can have one really bad game and still win the match. We won the first set 25-13 and I thought, we're playing pretty good volleyball. Then we switch sides and I tell them we need to be a lot better because they're going to be a lot better and the next thing you know we're down 13-4."

And yet, the coach trusts his team to recognize when they're not playing well. Perhaps even more than basketball, volleyball is a momentum sport and timeouts are used as often to break an opponent's rhythm and stop momentum as they are to make a strategic change. At one point in that difficult second set, Aird called a timeout and sat with outward calm at one end of the bench while his team huddled at the opposite end.

"I called a timeout and let them discuss it and then we battled back a little bit. They know when they're playing poorly. But they have to be more accountable and more responsible. I talked to them about being responsible for themselves and then accountable for the team. There wasn't a lot of that in game two. I'm not passing or setting or hitting any balls. It can be hard on kids when they get yelled at. They're down 10-2, they're playing poorly and they're embarrassed. They don't really have a solution. They need to regroup and there's nothing magical I'm going to be able to say. And they did battle back after that. So it wasn't a terrible game."

Some technical improvements

Defense

As noted in a previous story, in 2013 Maryland was one of the top blocking teams in the nation and Aird expects them to block well again this season. For the weekend, the Terps averaged 2.65 blocks per set a bit shy of the 2.8 they averaged last season. However, there were a number of times when they weren't in the best position to make a block and others when they failed to close or seal the block (where two or more blockers have created an impenetrable block) and the opponent was able to hit through. Said Aird, "Number one, we didn't serve very tough so when the setter gets the ball and can move it around, it's hard. Blocking is a hard skill."

Aid was a bit more effusive about Maryland's general defensive problems:

"Overall defensively when they play poorly, they panic a bit. Everybody wants to make every play and they run around too much. For good defensive players, it's like caveman volleyball. ‘See ball. Get Ball. Be stopped. See where ball goes. Go there. Get ball.' A lot of the times they're running around like chickens with their heads cut off. It's just not very fluid.

Reading is the most fundamental skill in the sport of volleyball and we're not very good at it.  It's something we have to spend a lot of time in practice getting better at.

Another part of defense is moving your feet and playing hard. In that first aspect we go to the floor a little too much. Good players run through balls and stay on their feet. But for our team that's partly because they're not very strong. You need to be stopped and accelerate very quickly to the ball. For us right now there's a lot of false stepping and a lot of slow first steps. Part of that is strength and conditioning.

Still, defensively, the number one thing you want to do is block balls. I'm not a big believer in channeling or saying we want balls hit in certain places. I want to block balls. But then you've got to play around the block. You can't get caught behind it or get caught flat footed. These are some of the things we're doing. To some degree it's lack of experience and to some degree it's lack of maturity."

Setting

One of the first players Aird brought into the program was a transfer from Oregon State, sophomore setter Carlotta Oggioni. The coach brought her in with high expectations and he is demanding a lot from her. Although she was named as the weekend's most outstanding setter, and is averaging 42 assists per match, the coach wants and expects her to play at an even higher level.

"We've got a long way to go in terms of decision making. We got aced 17 times in 2 matches today. The smaller people who are responsible for making that first pass weren't great and that can affect the setting. But our hitters also need to be more consistent with being aggressive. Sometimes they'll drive really hard and sometimes they won't. It's a matter of trust. Carlotta has to trust that she's a good player. She's got to get her feet there and deliver a ball and the hitters have to drive through a ball and be brave about it.

In the fifth set tonight, we had six attack errors. That means we gave away six points. If Caroltta's good, we shouldn't be making that many hitting errors because the ball's in a spot where we can hit the balls well.

We're relying on Carlotta to run the program. She's talented and she cares what she needs most right now is self confidence. She has to believe she can play at this level and just let it go. Carlotta's got to get to that place where she can have fun on the court and show her great smile. She's a sophomore who's going to have to get a lot better."

I would be remiss

Much of the weekend's attention fell to Maryland's senior stars Ashlegh Crutcher and Adreene Elliott. Both made the All-Tournament Team and amassed 85 kills between them. However, Maryland also got great production from their middle blockers. Hailey Murray had another strong weekend. The freshman hit an impressive .351 and added seven blocks on 12 assists and one solo block. The Terps also got a huge boost from the return of Chavi St. Hill. The sophomore registered 22 kills while hitting .452 for the weekend including an off the charts .611 in the match against East Tennessee State. She added 6.5 blocks to her stat line.

The Terps have a week to practice and a chance to show real progress as the competition takes a step up in their next three matches.