Heading into the 2019 season, all signs pointed towards this being the year Maryland volleyball would break its 14-year NCAA Tournament drought.
In 2017, the Terps were one of the First Four Teams out of the NCAA Tournament. In 2018, once again, Maryland just narrowly missed out on the big dance after winning its most conference matches since joining the Big Ten. Most of the team’s talent returned too.
But 24 matches into the season, Maryland sits at 12-12 and its chances of ending that drought have gotten slimmer, match-by-match.
“We’re not where we expected to be at the beginning of the year with what we’ve been dealt this season with injuries and some losses we think we shouldn’t have had,” redshirt sophomore Katie Myers said.
It started in nonconference play, which ended in an 8-4 record due in large part to the absence of junior setter Nicole Alford, who was out the first nine matches of the season nursing a foot injury.
The consistency Maryland found last season with a 5-1 rotation was lost as the Terps switched to a 6-2, rotating two setters in instead of one.
“If you look at one-setter offenses like we had last year and 6-2s, there’s pros and cons,” head coach Adam Hughes said. “The pros are that you can be more physical at times, you have an extra attacker up there. The cons are that you lose some continuity.”
So far, Maryland has used four different setters this season: Alford, seniors Samantha Snyder and Taylor Smith, and junior Chloe Prejean.
It’s been a tough transition to say the least, even with Alford returning to the lineup. It took her a while to ramp up to game speed, but when she got back to full health, Maryland had already settled into the 6-2 rotation and have been adjusting to it from match to match.
“With having Nicole out, that’s one of the things last year, like any sport, where you just have that trust factor. You know where it’s gonna be and you can play without the ball,” Hughes said. “If you don’t know where exactly the rhythm’s gonna be and where that ball’s gonna be, it slows you down. You’re not as effective...I think we’re a different team when she’s here.”
That has definitely showed as the Terps have struggled in conference play trying to establish a good serve-and-pass game and get off to quick, fast starts. It hasn’t been there like it was in previous seasons, and inconsistency is a big reason for that.
“It’s been tough going from setter to setter, but I know that all of our hitters have been heavy communication and trying to work on that,” Myers said. “Just the standard across the board of trying to set the same ball, so just trying to find that middle ground.”
With what’s left in the season, the team, while not in the position it wanted to be, is now hoping salvage what it can from the last eight matches of conference play.
“What you make of it is up to you and your mindset and I think we got a group that is still interested in trying to squeeze the most out of the season,” Hughes said. “I told them the staff was with them 100 percent...We’re putting together as many plans and development process video sessions for players because I wanna get all the time I can with them and squeeze every ounce out of it.”
The injuries this season have been a sure setback for this program, which had higher expectations set for itself, both on by its own accord and the conference. Right now, the setbacks have played a bigger role than where the team has taken a few steps forward, but there have been some big breakthroughs and glimpses of success.
In the team’s first match against Penn State this season, the Terps took the Nittany Lions to five sets on the road, winning a set in State College for the first time in nearly 40 years. They fell flat when Penn State came to College Park, losing in straight sets, but the proof is in the paper that this program can compete.
“I feel like we are doing well, stepping up against the bigger teams, comparing ourselves to them,” sophomore Rainelle Jones said. “We know that we’re right there, just a couple points behind them. We just need to make sure we’re focused on that, making sure we are getting better.”
All of that funnels back into this idea of “trusting the process”, something Hughes talked about. That phrase is synonymous with the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers, who promised fans success after years of tanking, telling them to “Trust The Process”.
Currently, that team is one of the best in professional basketball, and right now, Maryland is still in a position to be successful this season and seasons to come. The key is to buy in to this system where there is a goal at the end.
“It’s not always just a continued growth path. There’s times where you’re gonna have some setbacks, whether that’s injuries or things that are out of your control,” Hughes said. “If you look at our plot as a program, I feel like we’ve taken steps on that path all along. Did we take a step back? I don’t think so. I don’t think we have the results...If we’re worried just about those results, then we’re not getting ourselves to be any better.”
As for where that system is now, the team has seemed to buy into it, but there needs to be 100 percent commitment moving forward if Maryland wants to end that streak, 14 years in the making.
“If we’re not on the same page then we won’t be successful, but I feel like we’re gonna get there,” Jones said. “We still have time left in the season to get it right.”