To say that Penn State is a volleyball powerhouse is true in the way that saying Ohio State cares about football is. The Nittany Lions won four NCAA Championships in a row from 2007-2010 and then grabbed the last two in a row. That's six national titles in the last eight seasons.
Penn State won their first 12 matches this season in straight sets. They didn't drop a set until the last week in September. Maryland was not supposed to be competitive in this match.
The Terps started off the match with an Ashlyn MacGregor kill and built a 6-4 lead over the Nittany Lions. An attacking error by MacGregor gave Penn State their first lead of the game at 7-6 but the Terrapins recovered to tie the set at 11. Maryland built a 15-12 lead and stayed in front, 20-18. Liz Twilley's kill made it 21-18 and Penn State called a timeout.
The Terps kept the pressure on and led 23-19 when Penn State called their second and final timeout of the set. Bryanna Weiskircher had a service error to bring the Terps to set point. Libero Kelsey Wicinski served the ball and a mental lapse by a Penn State's Alli Frantti gave Maryland the set one win.
Maryland took the first set, 25-21, and the Xfinity Center erupted in cheers.
Elliott led the way on offense for the Terps, recording six kills. The first set was a back and forth affair, with eight ties and a pair of lead changes.
Maryland trailed to start the second set but battled back to tie it up at five-all. Penn State put some distance between them and the Terrapins, going on an 8-3 run. The Nittany Lions kept the pedal on the floor, taking an 18-10 lead and forcing Maryland head coach Steve Aird to take his final timeout of the set.
Maryland pulled to within six and Penn State called timeout. The Nittany Lions adjusted and finished off the Terps on their third set point, 25-17.
Penn State wasn't about to let Maryland have any momentum and raced out to a 6-2 lead. The Terps looked to have a point won but a brilliant play by Haleigh Washington helped turn the tables.
Penn State had a poor dig on the first hit and the ball didn't even travel up in the air, much less threaten to land on Maryland's side of the net. Washington kicked the ball up as it was at her shoestrings. She was able to lift it high enough that Penn State could hit it over and the Nittany Lions ended up winning the point. It was an incredibly athletic play and it showcased Washington's incredible instincts and volleyball IQ.
After Penn State took a 15-4 lead, Aird called for a timeout. It didn't help. The Nittany Lions crushed the Terps in the third set, 25-12. Once again, Penn State closed out the set on the third set point.
Maryland jumped out to a 9-7 lead. Angel Gaskin blasted home a kill to get the Terps to double digits but Penn State responded and tied the game at 11.
The set went back and forth. The Terps tied the game at 17 and took the lead. Penn State called timeout. Amy Dion couldn't handle a serve from Weiskircher and her dig attempt hit Wicinski in the face. The Nittany Lions were up 22-19 and Aird called for a timeout.
Gaskin got a kill coming out of the timeout and combined with MacGregor for a block. The pair combined for another block as Maryland tied it up at 22 apiece. Penn State called timeout and scored two straight to force match point.
The Nittany Lions teamed up to block Gaskin and take the fourth set by the score of 25-22. The top-ranked and two-time defending national champs left College Park with the 3-1 win.
Penn State (22-2, 11-2) didn't play a great game. They were sloppy and hit below .200 in two of their four sets. This is an offense that Aird described as "one of, if not, the most potent in the country." Maryland (12-15, 2-11) didn't suddenly become a great defensive team. They aren't. Penn State got much more physical as the game progressed and Maryland wasn't talented enough to beat them. Aird said he didn't think the Nittany Lions were particularly great tonight.
Maryland played pretty clean volleyball through the first two sets but then struggled with errors on both the attacking and service ends in sets three and four. They played a very good first set and won. They played a very good fourth set and nearly won. This team can compete with some of the country's best teams but this Maryland squad stole a set from the top-ranked, two-time defending national champions tonight.
I wish I could tell you it was because Maryland played up to Penn State's level of competition but that wouldn't be true. Penn State played down to Maryland and the Terps capitalized on the Nittany Lions' many mistakes.
This was not an easy match for Aird to prepare for or to watch. "Obviously, I think we did some nice things. It's always a difficult match for me because there's a lot of teams in the country I'd rather beat than my alma mater...The best part of the night for me was that we didn't roll over in game four. We competed...The kids played hard and Penn State is awfully good."
Once Penn State started playing more of the way they are capable of, the Terps were done. The Nittany Lions took it to Maryland and, despite many mistakes in the fourth set, were still able to hold Maryland off long enough to get the 3-1 win.
Maryland caught Penn State napping a bit in the first set. After that, it was clear they had awoken a sleeping giant. "To beat a team at that caliber, you have to play very, very clean and play very, very hard for two hours, two hours and fifteen minutes," Aird said in his post-game comments.
Maryland isn't there yet. They probably won't be next year either. But they'll be closer. The Terps started four freshmen. They took big swings and they weren't scared.
Aird said that it's all part of the process. "Sometimes they hit balls under the net and fired balls into the band...I'm ok with that. I'm ok with them making errors...It's a step forward but, at the end of the day, it's a loss."
The Terps don't have the talent to beat the nation's best just yet. "The reality of it is that until we're a little bit more mature and more physical, if the other teams play well and we play well, it's going to be hard to have success." That about sums it up. Maryland's version of playing well is not good enough to beat other great teams' versions of playing well.
This program is changing. Over 3,000 people showed up to watch a Maryland volleyball match on Thursday night. They weren't all just parents and kids either. Members of the men's and women's basketball teams were there. So were athletes from football, wrestling and track. A number of former Maryland volleyball players were in the building as well. More than 3,000 people. Two years ago, you would have been hard-pressed to find 400.
This program is changing and, by the looks of it, it will continue to grow and grow stronger. Performances like tonight give fans a tiny peek into the future of Maryland volleyball. It's a future as bright as the Xfinity Center lights and that is the bottom line.