Junior Nicole Alford was coming off the best season of any Maryland volleyball setter since Remy McBain in 2011, recording 1,117 assists and 9.80 assists per set in 2018.
She was poised to improve on that, until a foot injury during the preseason forced her to miss the first nine matches of the 2019 season, causing a big blow to the program.
Alford’s injury was a just a glimpse into the struggles Maryland dealt this year, as several key players missed chunks of game time.
“It was really disappointing,” Alford told Testudo Times. “We felt like it was going to be a really good year for us. We felt like it was going to be our year.”
Maryland volleyball was preparing for a home match against then-No. 6 Minnesota on Nov. 8 when the team suffered a major blow.
Redshirt sophomore middle blocker Katie Myers sprained her foot in practice just over 24 hours before the matchup and was sidelined for that weekend’s games.
Going into that weekend, Myers was among the Big Ten’s most accurate offensive players, hitting over .400 and one of the nation’s top blockers with 136 total blocks and 1.38 blocks per set.
Sophomores Allegra Rivas and Rainelle Jones were hit by the injury bug too. Rivas missed the last four matches of the season after suffering a concussion during practice on Nov. 20 and Jones played through finger injuries.
“There’s certain injuries that you can’t control,” head coach Adam Hughes told Testudo Times. “Sometimes, being reckless or being silly in practice or doing something stupid can lead to a concussion or something where there’s nothing really that we can do about it.”
And there was nothing Alford could do about her injury, or when she could return as a key leader for the Terps. There was no timetable for her recovery, with everything up to how her body reacted and recovered, which she said was the toughest part.
Though not on the floor, Alford made the best of her situation. During practice, she continued to communicate with teammates and found ways to continue to set, whether standing up in her boot between drills or sitting down.
Throughout her recovery process, she talked about having a great support system of friends and coaches, especially Myers, who was her biggest help during that time.
“Nicole and I are best friends, on and off the court. Our lockers are right next to each other, so every day, I’d ask her, ‘Hey, how are you feeling today?’” Myers said. “I would let her know that she had my support. On her hard days, I was there when she needed a shoulder to cry on, or if she needed to hear positive words, I had them.”
A few weeks before the end of the season, Alford approached Myers to thank her for the positive words of encouragement.
The constant support from those around her prevented her from giving up and helped motivate her to get back on the court.
“The way I’d describe me and Katie’s relationship is just special,” Alford said. “She was able to help me figure out what I needed to do to get better. She’s such a great friend to me and I’m thankful that I had her to lean on to get me through those couple of weeks.”
Once Alford was healthy enough to get back on the court, it took her time to get back to game speed. Maryland had also switched to a 6-2 formation, different than the 5-1 she was used to in 2018. Instead of one setter, the Terps featured two.
Maryland would go back to a 5-1 later in the season, but not before Alford was sidelined for a second time. The injury came in the second set of a straight-set loss at then-No. 4 Wisconsin on Oct. 30.
“It was definitely not an easy process. It was frustrating,” Alford said. “I think I put a lot of pressure on myself to come back right away and be back to full health instead of just listening to my body.”
Both made full recoveries before the season’s end, but it was too late for the Terps, who regressed to 13-19 in 2019 — the program’s worst season since 2016.
With the season over, eyes are already on 2020 and if there’s anything next year’s team is going to focus on, it’s going to be to not take steps back, especially with injury.
“I’m already having conversations with [assistant athletic trainer Melissa Pforr] and the nutritionist,” Alford said. “I’m going to do whatever it takes to make sure that my body is in the best shape.”