The going has not always been easy for setter Taylor Smith to start the Big Ten season. Thrown into the starting lineup following a season-ending injury to senior Whitney Craigo, the freshman became the sole setter in a new system for Maryland volleyball.
With 43 assists, four kills and five block assists Wednesday night in Maryland’s five-set loss to No. 16 Michigan, Smith appears to be grasping the new system and the increased role as the season advances. Her 43 assists are the second-most of her Big Ten career, while the four kills and five blocks are both Big Ten career-highs.
“To know that the hitters were there, I could get them a ball and I could trust them to put the ball away. It’s a growing and learning connection and I think we’re getting there,” Smith said.
Freshman Gia Milana reaped the benefits of Smith’s steady serving night with a new career-high of 22 kills. But the record means little to Milana when it does not include a win with it.
“I just always look to be a help to my team, so any time I can terminate balls is great for the team. As long as it helps us win—which it didn’t tonight—I’m happy,” Milana said. “We’re just going to keep going at it, keep working in the gym because if we were good enough we would’ve won that game. I think we just have to get back in the gym, and as coach says, get 1 percent better every day.”
Maryland had two match points in the final set Wednesday night, but could not pull off the upset over the Wolverines. It came down to some young mistakes, as coach Steve Aird called them, including an error from Smith which gifted Michigan’s winning point.
“I’m asking a lot of the kid, and with the situation with Whitney [Craigo], it’s a blessing and a curse. She’s not a veteran setter. She will be as a junior, but right now she’s learning the lessons,” Aird said of Smith.
“Volleyball IQ comes with experience, and the only way to get experience is to be in these matches, and you hope just going forward she learns, and she adapts, and she just keeps getting better.”
As a left-handed setter, Smith has a certain advantage for surprise hits, an area of her game worth expanding. When facing the left front position—Milana’s attacking side—her left hand will be off net, allowing a quicker strike on the second contact. Her four kills Wednesday night show an increased confidence in that side of a setter’s game.
“It’s definitely something we have practiced in the gym, when to do it, different situations, when not to do it, and the technique of it.”
With the switch away from the 6-2 rotation Maryland planned to employ going into the season, Smith has had to adapt as the lone setter on the court. A 6-2 rotation employs two setters and an extra outside hitter, but with Craigo and freshman Katie Myers injured, Maryland had to develop a new attack.
As the lone setter on the front court, it is a necessity to be able to block. Smith showed some of her ability with five block assists Wednesday night, teaming with Ashlyn MacGregor on many of them.
“We haven’t spent a lot of time with her blocking,” Aird said, the priority being her setting. “We worked on it a little bit this week. We go into matches, we spend a little bit of time on the other team, but right now it’s probably 30% on the other team, 70% on us, just because I’ve got all these young kids I’m trying to teach systems and skills.”
There is little time to spend on the narrow defeat to Michigan before Maryland plays Rutgers on Saturday.
“In the world of athletics there’s no time to pout,” Aird said. “Michigan should’ve beaten us 3-0. If you’re the 16th-ranked team in the country, you should come in here and win 3-0 and get on the plane and head home.”
The Terps (8-13, 0-9) and Scarlet Knights (4-18, 0-9) battle to avoid last place in the Big Ten conference—a race Northwestern also finds itself in. A win is never guaranteed in the Big Ten, but Saturday appears to be the Terps’ best shot at their first conference victory of the season.