Coming into their opening match of the DC Classic at Howard University on Saturday afternoon, Maryland sported a unblemished 4-0 record. They swept three of their four opponents and had yet to go five sets with a team. After winning the Maryland Invitational, the Terps looked to continue their winning ways in the heart of the nation's capital against Penn.
The Quakers struggled last season, going 8-17 and 5-9 in Ivy League competition. They sport two all-conference performers in Alexis Genske, an outside hitter, and Alex Caldwell, a setter and right side hitter. Outside hitter Jasmine DeSilva also returns after missing last season due to an injury. While Maryland already had four matches under their belt, this was Penn's first match of the season.
Maryland jumped out to a 5-2 lead against Penn and Adreene` Elliott continued her impressive play, recording three early kills. Later, Amy Dion was a bit indecisive on an easy ball but was able to pop the ball up. The ball got set to Liz Twilley and she got the kill to get Maryland to double digits. The Quakers closed the gap to 15-12 but Emily Fraik played a nice touch shot in between three Penn defenders. Angel Gaskin finished off a long rally to give Maryland a 17-12 lead. Penn called for a time-out.
The Quakers pulled back within two after Hailey Murray hit a ball into the net. A Penn ball hit the net and dropped over onto Maryland's side as Penn got it to one. The Quakers tied the game as Twilley hit a ball out of bounds. Hailey Murray's ensuing attacking error gave Penn the lead and they extended it to 21-19. Maryland Head Coach Steve Aird took a time-out to try and stop the bleeding.
It didn't work. Abby Bentz's service error made it 22-20 and Penn finished it off, winning the first set 25-23.
Penn scored the first four points of the second set before Elliott got them on the board. Fraik's tip tied it up at seven-all. Another attacking error on the Terps made it 10-7 in favor of the Quakers.
Aird called time with the Terps trailing 13-9. Maryland could not get out of their own way in the first and second set. Something needed to change in order for the Terrapins to have a chance in this set and in this match. Bentz made another service error and Penn led 16-11. Aird took his final time-out of the set with Maryland down 18-12.
Whatever Aird was telling his team clearly wasn't sinking in. The Quakers made it 20-13 and easily took the second set 25-15.
Maryland started to look like the team that swept their first three games of the season in the third set. They took the first four points of the set and showed intensity on the court. The Terps went to Elliott when they needed it most and she delivered. Maryland got to double digits first with a slight 10-7 lead.
Twilley committed another attacking error but Elliott recorded another kill to keep the lead at three. Maryland started to reassert their dominance up front and stretched the lead to seven. Maryland made two straight errors before Genske served the ball into the net, giving Maryland a 16-11 lead.
Fraik's kill made it 19-13 in favor of Maryland and Penn failed to return her ensuing serve. In keeping with the theme for Maryland in the match, Fraik served the ball into the net immediately afterwards. Maryland was up 22-17 and Penn scored the next two points. Aird called time-out.
Maryland stumbled coming out of the time-out, giving up two points before Elliott's kill gave the Terps a 23-21 lead. The Quakers refused to go away. They tied the match at 23 apiece before Murray's kill gave Maryland their first set point of the match. Maryland couldn't put it away as Penn tied it up.
Aird called time-out with the match knotted at 24. Elliott's kill gave the Terrapins their second match point and once again, Maryland failed to win the set. Fraik got a kill to give Maryland their third set point and Maryland committed yet another mental error to tie the game at 26 apiece. Genske got a kill for Penn but Maryland was able to tie it up. Penn got their second set point but Michellie McDonald-O'Brien served it into the net. A Penn attacking error gave Maryland their fourth set point and the Terps finally closed it out as Penn hit it out of bounds, giving Maryland the 30-28 set win.
Through four sets, Elliott and Fraik led the Terps in kills, with 14 and 10 respectively, and they both had five blocks each. Fraik picked up another block to give Maryland a 4-2 lead and then followed it up with a kill. Elliott and MacGregor combined for a block to make it 6-3 in favor of the Terps. Fraik picked up another kill and Maryland ran their lead out to five.
Ashlyn MacGregor's attacking error gave Penn the ball back. Twilley had her first shot blocked but got another try and got the kill to get Maryland to double digits. Maryland led 10-5 but Carlotta Oggioni misplayed an easy ball to make it 10-6. Murray got two straight kills to get Maryland back on track. Bentz made another service error and Penn trailed 12-8 before Twilley got a kill from the right side. Murray and Fraik combined for a block and Fraik followed that up with yet another block to stretch the Maryland lead to seven.
Penn called time with the Terps up 16-8. Maryland kept the pressure on. Murray's kill made it 18-9 but the Quakers came back to make it 20-15 and Aird called time-out. Maryland forced set point at 24-17 but couldn't get it on the first try. Fraik stepped up and sent the match to a fifth and final set with a kill to give Maryland the 25-18 set win.
The goal in the fifth set in college volleyball is simple. Get to 15. Win by two. Penn got on the board first in the fifth and decisive set courtesy of a Murray attacking error. Murray got a kill to make it 2-2. Both teams traded points before Genske gave Penn a 4-3 lead.
Twilley gave Maryland their first lead of the set with a kill. Gaskin and MacGregor combined on a block to make it 6-4. MacGregor's kill made it 7-4 before Penn answered. Twilley sent a rocket down the left side to make it 8-5 and the teams switched sides for the second half of the set.
Kelsey Wicinski's serve stayed on the net and dropped over for a Maryland point and Penn's Desilva committed an attacking error, giving Maryland a 10-5 lead. Twilley continued to be the hot hand for Maryland in the fifth set, getting a kill to give the Terps an 11-7 lead.
Twilley struck again to make it 12-8. Elliott stuffed a Quaker attacker to push the lead to five. Fraik's kill gave Maryland match point. On the ensuing play, she got a block and roared as Maryland took the fifth and final set, 15-9, to beat Penn in a thrilling come-from-behind victory.
This match could easily be split into two halves. In the first, Maryland committed error after error. They had eight attacking errors in the first set and eight in the second. Abby Bentz had five of their seven service errors, almost all of which came in the first two sets. Maryland blew a 17-12 lead and couldn't catch up with Penn down the stretch as they dropped a set they should have probably won. Penn came out swinging in the second set and, together with Maryland's mistakes, took a slight lead and extended it to 18-12. They calmly closed out the set 25-15 to put Maryland's backs to the wall.
The third set was the turning point in the match. Maryland scored the first four points of the set and got out to a 19-13 lead and led 22-17 before Penn tied it up at 23 apiece. Maryland had three straight set points and couldn't win the set. Penn had two of their own and couldn't get it done. Maryland got their set point and won the set on back-to-back errors by Penn. They got a little lucky but as the saying goes, sometimes it's better to be lucky than good.
Maryland started to roll in the fourth set, committing only one attacking error while the Quakers had a comical 11 of them. The Terps were up comfortably, 18-9, but Penn refused to go quietly and Maryland won the set 25-18. That brought the match to the fifth and final set.
Maryland and Penn traded points until freshman Liz Twilley gave Maryland a 5-4 lead that they would not relinquish. Twilley and Fraik helped put the match away for Maryland as they won the decisive fifth set 15-9 and continued their hot start to the season.
Maryland was better up front early on in the first set and it was evident in the fifth and final set. The Terrapins combined for 18 team blocks. While Murray and Fraik each had nine, MacGregor had seven and Elliott chipped in with six. The Terps had 34 individual blocks while Penn only had two.
If you follow the hitting percentage, it tells the story of the match quite well. Maryland was hitting at a .220 clip in the first set and a .033 clip in the second. That's right, 3.3 percent. They lost both sets.
They proceeded to hit .277 in the third set, .297 in the fourth, and .333 in the fifth and final set. Penn went from .257 and .379 in the first and second sets to hitting .174, .023, and -.071. The Quakers had more errors than kills in the final set.
This afternoon's match was the tale of two halves. Maryland started very poorly but they finished strong. That was the difference.
Maryland Volleyball came into what resembled a high school gym with no air conditioning on Saturday afternoon and played like they were in high school for the first two sets before showing the fire and resolve that head coach Steve Aird has tried to instill in this program. This is the culture change that Aird has been looking for. Last year, this team would have rolled over and gotten swept or lost in four sets. Not this year. Not this team.
Murray said the mentality was simple. "We kind of go into it thinking, "We're not gonna lose. We don't lose." You have to believe that you're gonna win and keep pushing and that's what carried us...I'm really proud of us because we wouldn't have done that last year and I think that says a lot to the ladies that are on the court right now."
Aird knows where this team and this program is this year. They aren't going to compete for the Big Ten title. They aren't going to compete for the national championship.
"At the end of the day, I think our kids work really hard. If they get into tight matches, they're going to find ways to win because they do have that in them...when push comes to shove, they're going to be aggressive and take big swings...We've been in a couple of matches this year where we've been pushed and they've been able to find a way to come back and win."
Now comes the bitter pill of honesty. A better and more seasoned squad would have shut the door on the Terrapins today. Great teams put matches away. They don't give up leads. They build them and extend them. When another team tries to come back, they keep them at bay. They don't beat themselves with mistakes.
Maryland played very poor volleyball for almost two entire sets. They weren't communicating. They were making service and attacking errors at an alarming rate. Maryland couldn't do incredibly basic, fundamental things like properly set the ball or make accurate passes. They didn't look like a decent team, much less a good one.
I think losing that first set took a toll on this young team and they played awful volleyball in the second set. They had nine kills and eight errors. They snapped out of it and played the way they are capable of over the course of the final three sets.
Aird has the end goal in mind and when you see this team come back from two sets down and win in dramatic fashion, you get the feeling that Aird's kids are starting to get it too. "I think it's baby steps. I'm happy that they're finding ways to win. I think they're doing a nice job of playing first whistle to last whistle. No one gave up. No one tanked. There's a lot of glassy looks at times when they're worried about losing but that's not a championship mentality...Winners find ways to win...We did that a couple of times today and that was fun."
This team and this program will be almost unrecognizable in two or three years once Aird brings in his stable of highly touted recruits. A team of winners that finds losing as unacceptable as much as they find it unpalatable.
Maryland will continue to feast on their early season schedule until they get to the Oklahoma Invitational and their Big Ten conference schedule. For now, this win serves as a marker. A marker on the road to building the kind of program that will compete in earnest for titles. Today, Maryland showed fight. They showed desire. They showed a competitive spirit and a quick memory that allowed them to move past their mistakes and play the way they were coached to play.
A marker. It's amazing how much has changed in a year. That my friends is the bottom line.