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Maryland volleyball showed its potential in 2016, and things should only get better

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It’s clear where the Terps are going, but they weren’t there this year.

Courtesy of Maryland Volleyball

After his team concluded its season with a sweep of Indiana Friday night, Maryland volleyball coach Steve Aird noted a similarity between his team and the Oakland Raiders. The Terps grew this year, but expectations for the future are even higher, just like they were for Oakland, who is currently having that breakout season.

“We talked last year about learning how to compete and stay in the fight in every game,” Raiders coach Jack Del Rio said after a 34-31 victory over the San Diego Chargers in October. “This year, we wanted to take a step forward in terms of understanding how you flourish in those situations and make the winning plays.”

Aird hopes Maryland can undergo a similar transition. Oakland finished 7-9 last season, missing the playoffs. This year, the Raiders are leading the AFC West with a 9-2 record.

The Terps competed all season too, but missed plenty of opportunities to pick up a few more wins during their 12-20 season. Next year, if Maryland can close more games, the Terps can make a run at an NCAA Tournament bid.

“This year we took games off everyone,” Aird said. “We played really hard all year, and the kids learned how to compete, and I think next year is winning time.”

Non-conference slate (8-4)

Maryland had a tough non-conference schedule before an even fiercer Big Ten one. In the early season, the Terps were swept by then-Nos. 4 and 5 Kansas and Washington, as well as then-No. 21 Southern California.

A 3-2 loss to Towson in early September showed the inexperience of the team. The Terps could not recover from an early 2-0 deficit despite the comeback effort from senior Ashlyn MacGregor, freshman Gia Milana and sophomore Kelsey Wicinski. MacGregor led the team with seven blocks, Milana led with 18 kills and Wicinski had a match-high 23 digs.

Freshman Gia Milana led the Terps with 446 kills this season.
Courtesy of Maryland Athletics

But a 3-1 win over Oklahoma just a week later showed Maryland’s potential. Wicinski set a career-high 28 digs and hit four aces. Freshmen impressed, with Taylor Smith notching 52 assists and Milana hitting 20 kills. Finally, MacGregor’s nine blocks rounded off the best early-season performance for the Terps.

Blocking became a staple for Maryland’s success, and Milana proved to be the focal point of the attack all season. The Romeo, Michigan native was named an All-Big Ten Honorable Mention and was also unanimously selected to the All-Freshman Team. She is the first ever All-Freshman pick in program history.

Experience against competition of that level was necessary since 13 of the Terps’ 20 Big Ten matches came against ranked teams or teams receiving votes.

Big Ten play (4-16)

The Terps opened the Big Ten campaign by getting swept three straight times. Against Nos. 2 and 3 Minnesota and Wisconsin, Maryland had little chance at an upset. The opening-week road trip concluded with a straight-set loss at Iowa. The skid would continue all the way to 0-9.

Maryland had swings to win against Illinois and Michigan, and the Terps forced a fifth set against Purdue, but could not seal the deal. Instead, Maryland finished 4-16 in the conference.

“We’re all disappointed with the record. I’m the first one to tell you that I would have loved to have won more matches,” Aird said. “It’s very, very clear we were really young, all those kids got better, recruiting is going great.

“I think we had the opportunity to be in matches, but when we lost Whitney [Craigo], we lost Aylin [Saran], and we lost Katie [Myers], those are three kids who really mattered, and we weren’t deep enough to lose those positions.”

Plenty of other Terps suffered from lesser injuries that effected practice time. Milana went a couple of weeks skipping practices and only playing in matches as she recovered from a lower body injury. Angel Gaskin dealt with a nagging upper body injury.

The Terps beat Rutgers twice, a must-win matchup. Away at Rutgers, the Terps struggled with 18 errors in three tight sets, but made it two straight victories with an upset victory against then-No. 19 Ohio State.

At home against Rutgers, Maryland was fueled by 13 aces against an injury-riddled Scarlet Knights lineup. The Terps did not blow out Rutgers in any set, but won each one in the two matches.

For the second year counting, Maryland had Ohio State’s number in College Park. In five sets, the Terps put away the Buckeyes, overcoming Milana’s off-night through blocking and collective effort. Liz Twilley led the Terps with 13 kills. Gaskin was close behind with 10, and three others tied for nine. Hailey Murray led with eight blocks, and Twilley had six.

Three seniors were sent off with a Senior Night victory over Indiana on Friday in straight sets. MacGregor is the only one to see major floor time. The middle blocker was a centerpiece for the Terps. If not for Craigo’s injury, the setter would have been there too, but Carlotta Oggioni only appeared in two sets this season.

Takeaways

After Craigo’s season-ending injury, Smith had to step up. The Indiana native showed her inexperience at times, but came through for Maryland as the lone setter in her up-and-down freshman year.

Her double-contact violation handed then-No. 16 Michigan a fifth-set victory in College Park, but only a week later her solo block helped upset Ohio State. Smith led Big Ten freshman with 8.98 assists per set.

Smith “was thrown into the fire,” Aird said. “She’d been playing real volleyball for only eight months, so she has a long way to go, and, to be frank, really needs to improve in the next six to eight months. All the young kids got a ton of experience.”

MacGregor was a leader on the court, and a presence the young Terps needed. The Florida native graduates as a lot of buzz is generated around the program, and she hopes it will translate into hard work and results.

“I hope they train really hard in the spring, winter and summer and they’re ready to go for next year,” she said. “Because we had the opportunity going into [the season], we had a chance to go to the tournament if we took care of some things, and we weren’t able to.”

Wicinski established herself as a top libero in the Big Ten in her sophomore season. She finished the year third in the conference with 4.22 digs per set. Milana too proved herself as one of the top freshman in the nation. She led Big Ten freshman in kills, averaging 3.91 per set.

Libero Kelsey Wicinski led Maryland with 27 aces.
Courtesy of Maryland Volleyball

The Terps welcome six recruits into their ranks this offseason, adding plenty of depth to the program. Injuries hampered the Terps this season; without a deep bench, it was hard to compete. Next year should be different.

Maryland’s bringing in starter-quality freshman.

The program secured its second-ever Under Armour First Team All-American in Sam Drechsel, then added three more All-Americans to what’s easily its best recruiting class ever.

This will spread out attacking options. Teams will have a harder time keying in on Milana and disrupting her without paying the price from someone else. As the season closed, Twilley and Gaskin both stepped up to become attacking threats, taking pressure off Milana.

This will only be improved next year with Myers due to return from injury; Twilley, Murray and Gaskin all as veteran players; and Drechsel, Lexi Alden and Erika Pritchard all hungry for college play.

“The beauty of it is that competition is going to make everyone better,” Aird said. “Next year we’re going to carry 18 or 19, we’re going to be deep. We’re bringing in four Under Armour All-Americans. It’s going to be a brawl to see who plays, and finally, for the first time since I’ve been here, we’re going to have depth.”

Next year, expectations are raised.

Maryland and Oakland share a connection through an underdog mentality the Terps have encapsulated all year. “Terps vs. Everybody,” as Aird’s custom warmup shirts read, captures the chippy confidence in Oakland that dates back to Al Davis’ “Just Win Baby” mantra. Wins might not always be there, but Maryland expects to get them sooner rather than later.

“The expectation this time next year is we need to be meeting at my house to watch a selection show, that’s the bar,” Aird said. “If you’re looking at an Olympic quad kind of scenario, for me this was year one. I think in year three and four, with this group, with the kids we’re bringing in, we’re going to be really good, not just regionally—I think nationally.”