Maryland played a very good brand of volleyball for the majority of their match on Saturday night at the XFINITY Pavilion. Despite losing in straight sets (28-26, 25-23, and 25-9), they showed signs of a team that is better than how they have played recently. Even though the lasting impression of the match is a brutal 25-9 loss that capped off a Northwestern sweep, Head Coach Steve Aird and company can dig up some positives to carry with them as they head into the rest of their daunting Big Ten schedule.
Adreene' Elliott came to play tonight. The redshirt senior grabbed the Terps first four points, and was winning the match 4-2 all by herself. Elliott, who has 23 kills in the past two matches to open conference play, credits her team and a "spiritual evolution" when talking about her fantastic performances.
"I'm really not that talented of a player, but the mental game and a spiritual side is just leveling me out," she continued. "My teammates have always been great. Now, I'm able to fill in my part of the puzzle."
Aird used his first timeout of the match after the Terps fell behind by two points. The team rallied, and, after an Amy Dion ace and a Northwestern attack error, tied the set at 18. The teams were tied again at 19 and then another Elliott kill made the score even at 20.
Carlotta Oggioni, who has struggled setting the ball for the majority of the season, had one of her best sets of the season. She placed a beautiful ball in the air that was slammed home by Hailey Murray to tie the game at 24.
The Wildcats were at set point when Angel Gaskin powered home another ball from Oggioni to bring the Terps back even at 25. A brutal service error from senior captain Amy Dion put Northwestern ahead 27-26, and then an attack error by Ashlyn MacGregor ended the first set with the score 28-26.
Errors were the deciding factor in the first set. The Terps, who had seven service errors and seven attack errors, could not get out of their own way. It was a set that Maryland easily could have won if it were not for the constant mistakes.
Similar to the first set, the second set was very competitive throughout. The teams were even at six, nine, and then at 10 when Elliott continued to dominate by slamming home a kill.
Not wanting to see the crucial set slip away, Aird called a timeout with the Terps down 15-12. An extremely long rally featuring some impressive defense by both teams ended in Northwestern's favor, making their lead 18-15. The Terps did not give in. MacGregor scored on a nice set by Whitney Craigo,and then Murray and Liz Twilley combined to block Northwestern's Kayla Morin to tie the game at 19.
With the XFINITY Pavilion rocking, and momentum shifting drastically in Maryland's favor, a MacGregor service error quickly quieted the crowd. A Twilley kill evened the score at 21 but the Wildcats responded. Maddie Slater blocked an attempt by MacGregor and the Terps again lost the set by two points.
Coach Aird had an opportunity to give the team a message in between the second and third sets. "I told them I thought we made a lot of errors early in the game. It was all over the place," Aird continued. "Our senior captain missed a serve, Angel [Gaskin], who doesn't get to serve much missed a serve. Sometimes this will happen, and sometimes this will happen at the same time. You chalk it up to a learning experience."
In Aird's opinion, the difference came towards the end of sets when things counted most.
"I thought we played half-decent the first two games, " Aird explained. "I think Northwestern had a great game plan and played a good match. When they had to be good late in games and in the third set, they were."
Facing a 2-0 deficit for the second consecutive night, Maryland put on a less-than-impressive performance in the final set.
Elliott tallied her eleventh kill of the match to make the score 2-1 in favor of the Wildcats. The score was 11-6 when Aird used a timeout, hoping to bring some life back into his team. The plan did not pan out as Northwestern put together a 14-3 run to close out the third set, cruising to a sweep of the Terps.
A lack of effort and enthusiasm from his team was something unfamiliar to Aird, which left him feeling disappointed in the way his team finished the match.
"The third set was a young team making a whole lot of errors," Aird explained. "We made a lot of uncharacteristic mistakes late. If you don't have the skill to hang with it physically, you need to have the heart and the effort. That's what bothered me most about the third game."
With a lot of volleyball left to be played, Aird knows there is still time for the team and staff to figure things out.
"They're going to have to do a little bit of a gut check," Aird said. "I have to make some decisions in terms of what I'm going to do short-term and long-term. I think we have good enough athletes to compete despite all the things we're dealing with."
Despite losing the match, the freshmen continued to show improvement. Kelsey Wicinski had eleven digs in the match, leaving Aird impressed with her performance thus far.
"I think Wicinski has been [playing] out of her mind," Aird explained. "She's a really good player and we'll groom her to be a huge part of the program going forward."
While it is easy to point out every mistake the Terps made and use that as the reasoning for losing five straight matches, Aird puts the majority of the blame on himself.
"A lot of people in this situation would like to point the finger. I point the thumb," Aird continued to defend his team. "They're good kids and they're working hard. At the end of the day, I'm the coach, this is my program, and I have to find a way to be better."
The Terps have to play the hand they're dealt. Although injuries to key players like Emily Fraik put the team in a tough spot, they need to find a way to string together some positive performances despite the grueling grind that is Big Ten play.