The Maryland volleyball team is immediately pitted against two powerhouse programs as it begins its Big Ten campaign this weekend. The Terps take on the defending Big Ten champions in the No. 2 Minnesota Golden Gophers (8-1) on Friday night.
On Saturday night, Maryland will face the No. 3 Wisconsin Badgers (8-1). As an added challenge, Maryland takes on Wisconsin and Minnesota while on a three-match road trip, ending Wednesday against Iowa (10-2).
Both Friday’s and Saturday’s matches can be streamed on BTN Plus starting at 8 p.m.
Coach Steve Aird begins his third season as coach of the Terps, and he’s improved the team each year. In 2014-15, his first season, Aird’s Terps went 10-21. They improved upon that in year two, going 15-19. What year three brings may depend upon creating a home-court advantage and maintaining strong leadership to get the most out of an underclassmen-heavy team.
Aird has already helped set five of the top-10 program attendance records in College Park early into his third season, and the highly regarded freshman class has made an immediate impact for the team in non-conference play.
Maryland is 8-4 through its 12-match non-conference schedule. Of the four defeats, three were to top-25 ranked programs. While the Terps were swept three sets to none in each of those games, the individual set scores offer a much tighter narrative. The largest margin of defeat in those three matches was only eight points.
Quality victories over Oklahoma, Georgetown, Arkansas and Princeton bolster Maryland’s non-conference record. The Terps earned revenge from Oklahoma this season in their 3-1 victory over the Sooners in the Pac-12 Challenge. Last season, Oklahoma had the upper hand in the same tournament.
Sophomore libero Kelsey Wicinski impressed in non-conference play, making the all-tournament team for all four tournaments the Terps took part in. The sophomore also set a career high with 28 digs against Oklahoma.
Freshman teammates Taylor Smith and Gia Milana also set career highs against Oklahoma. Smith led the team with 52 assists, and Milana led with 20 blocks in the victory.
The Terps’ No. 16-ranked freshman class—its first ever-ranked class—is a double-edged sword. While tremendous talent is on the rise at Maryland, a young team will need to adapt to college play quickly in a conference where 8 of the 14 teams are ranked in the top 25.
For Maryland, that seems to already be the case, with team-leading contributions from freshmen Smith and Milana.
Milana and Katie Myers were fully expected to be instant impacts, ranked in PrepVolleyball Top 100 recruits, with Milana ranked No. 15. However, Smith’s emergence into the starting squad is an early surprise. The setter, mentioned in PrepVolleyball’s Top 150, leads the team in assists with 266 in 31 sets played.
As for Milana, the outside hitter, she leads the team in kills with 166. Myers had to recover from an offseason knee injury, but saw her first action as a Terp was against Washington on September 15.
It will be a battle of wills between Maryland senior middle blocker Ashlyn MacGregor and Minnesota on Friday. MacGregor currently leads the nation in total blocks with 79, and is third in the nation with 1.88 blocks per set. The Golden Gophers lead the nation as a team with 3.42 blocks per set.
Wisconsin is a dangerous team. Its attack is led by reigning Big Ten Player and Freshman of the Week Molly Haggerty, who averages 4 kills per set. The Badgers are coming off of a victory over No. 16 Texas A&M, and a comeback victory to top then-No. 2 Texas. Wisconsin’s Tionna Williams also won the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Week award.
Minnesota also has it own Big Ten Player of the Week, setter Samantha Seliger-Swenson.
The Terps have a combined 0-10 record all-time when facing Minnesota and Wisconsin, but do have experience in the last year knocking off ranked teams.
Maryland defeated then-No. 12 Ohio State in straight sets last November. A victory this weekend on the road would be enormous, but it won’t be easy.