It’s been a productive nine months or so for the Maryland volleyball program. The Terps have welcomed four new faces to College Park, had three players travel overseas for volleyball and prepared throughout the spring and summer for the 2019 season.
On Saturday, the Terps begin their journey toward the NCAA Tournament at the Wildcat Invitational. They play Austin Peay and Kansas State in a day-night doubleheader beginning at 2 p.m.
Heading into opening weekend, head coach Adam Hughes said these two matches are no easy task, but they are big in terms of RPI.
“It ends up being a great RPI weekend for us. That’s one thing we know we have to be able to play the game with if we want to achieve what we wanna do, trying to make the tournament,” Hughes said. “That’s a stated goal from us from the time I got here. I want to make sure the program’s not afraid of that challenge.”
This is arguably Maryland’s toughest beginning to its season since joining the Big Ten, which shows how far the program has come in recent years.
The Terps will start the 2019 season with setter Nicole Alford nursing a foot injury, which will change Hughes’ gameplan on Saturday.
“Nicole is coming back. She’s a little beat up from preseason,” Hughes said. “We’ve got options in a 5-1 and a 6-2. That’s what we’ve been preaching for a long time, is that everyone needs to be ready to play.”
The players, namely junior outside hitter Erika Pritchard, have been long preparing for the beginning of the season.
They are looking to hit the ground running without looking back. It’s a time for players to “keep learning” before conference matches begin, as Pritchard described it.
“[It’s] really a time for correcting things that I need to be corrected on, so I’m more open on what the coaches are teaching me,” Pritchard said.
Unlike Maryland’s other three nonconference tournaments, the Terps will only be playing two matches, but let’s take a closer look at their opponents.
Austin Peay (27-5 in 2018, 14-2 OVC)
Maryland opens its 2019 season against an unfamiliar face as this is the first meeting between the Terps and Governors. Austin Peay has emerged as one of the best mid-major volleyball programs in the country, posting back-to-back 27+ win seasons.
The Governors returned to the NCAA Tournament in 2017 for the first time since 2010 and came up just short in 2018, losing to Murray State in the Ohio Valley Conference Volleyball Championship.
Austin Peay lost four key seniors from 2018. Outside hitter Cecily Gable led the Governors with 386 kills and 3.36 kills per set and was fourth on the team with 252 digs. The Governors also lost middle blocker Kaylee Taff and outside hitter/ middle blocker Logan Carger, who each recorded over 200 kills last season.
Arguably the biggest loss was Austin Peay’s featured setter, Kristen Stucker, who led the team with 1,282 assists and 11.05 assists per set last season, finishing 30th and 32nd, respectively, in all of Division I. Taff, Carter and Stucker were also the three best blocking players on the team, recording 220 total blocks
Replacing those four will be tough, but the Governors return senior Ginny Gerig and junior Brooke Moore, who finished first and second on the team in total digs. Gerig recorded 470 digs and Moore recorded 358. Moore was also second the team with 370 kills.
Players like senior Jenna Panning will be relied on. Panning recorded 247 kills last season and had the most total blocks last season of any returning player with 54. With four incoming freshmen this season, the Governors will get help on defense and setting, but their offense is in question as the 2019 season begins.
Kansas State (15-12 in 2018, 5-11 Big 12)
The Wildcats have been up-and-down the past two seasons after reaching the NCAA Tournament in five of six seasons previously, last making it in 2016. In 2018, Kansas State finished back above .500 but swooned in conference play, winning just five matches.
Compared to Austin Peay, who was able to retain production despite losing some, the Wildcats are going to have a lot of holes to patch up with six seniors gone from last season, including their best offensive and defensive players. Gone are Kylee Zumach, who recorded 321 kills last season, and Devan Fairfield, who recorded 368 digs. Zumach was also second on the team with 247 digs.
Sophomore Gloria Mutiri had a stellar freshman season, recording 271 kills, so she will be relied upon more, along with redshirt junior Peyton Williams, who recorded 141 kills last season.
The Wildcats are without 2018 All-Big 12 second team honoree Elle Sandbothe, who transferred to Ohio State this summer. Additionally, outside hitter Brooke Heyne is out, taking a “medical hardship” according to Sean Collings of The Mercury.
Despite the losses and scramble to fill the void, Kansas State brought in a top-20 recruiting class, according to PrepVolleyball.com. The incoming class includes four top-150 recruits, a top-50 recruit and the No. 2 recruit in Wisconsin, according to PrepDig.com. Despite their relative youth, the Wildcats have a lot of potential to be an under-the-radar program this season.
Maryland plays Austin Peay at 2 p.m. and Kansas State at 7 p.m. on Saturday. They will head back to College Park to face Howard on Monday at 6 p.m.
Three things to watch for
1. Erika Pritchard has emerged as one of the best outside hitters in the conference and the country. Saturday begins her campaign of possible First-Team Big Ten honors and All-American implications. She is Maryland’s key to their offensive game and if she is on, the Terps are on.
2. Kansas State lost several key pieces this offseason, but they also brought in one of the best recruiting classes in the nation for 2019. This is the first time any of those freshman will play competitive college volleyball, so it will be interesting to see how well they gel together in with the rest of the lineup.
3. Austin Peay has been an NCAA Tournament caliber team the last few seasons, but is this here to stay for the Governors or ust catching lightning in a bottle? That will be the question as the Terps see them in their first match of the season Saturday afternoon.