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A rising Maryland volleyball program looks to snap an NCAA Tournament drought in 2019

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Our State of the Program series continues with a team that’s been knocking on the postseason’s door.

Maryland volleyball Photo by Maryland Athletics

This summer, we’ll be going in-depth on every Maryland varsity program, taking a glimpse at where it’s been and where it’s going. We’ve already looked at football, women’s soccer, men’s soccer and field hockey. Next up is volleyball, a team that’s still seeking its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2005 but has the talent to get there and more.

Maryland volleyball

Established: 1971
All-time record: 992-677
Best seasons: 1973 (25-2); 1997 (27-2, NCAA second round)
Last 5 years: 63-88, 28-72 Big Ten
The coach: Adam Hughes (second season)
Fall 2018: 18-14, 9-11 Big Ten, third team out of NCAA Tournament

Where it’s been

In five decades of existence, this program has enjoyed several periods of success but has never achieved national relevance. Maryland has never advanced farther than the second round of the NCAA Tournament, reaching that stage six times under Janice Kruger. It’s been a traditionally stable program at head coach — Barb Drum led the way for 17 seasons, Kruger coached from 1988-2007 and Tim Horsman was Maryland’s only other coach in the ACC era.

In 2014, the Terps moved to the Big Ten — the nation’s strongest volleyball conference — and hired Steve Aird as its head coach. Aird, a salesman at heart, made the biggest recruiting splashes in program history, highlighted by five-star outside hitters Gia Milana and Samantha Drechsel. I wrote before the 2017 season about how all the pieces were in place for something special; that year, the Terps were the first team out of the NCAA Tournament field.

But then Aird left for Indiana, another lower-tier Big Ten program, and because Division I volleyball players can transfer once without sitting a year, Milana and Drechsel — along with a couple others — took advantage. Several commits in future classes reopened their recruitments. Maryland promoted top assistant Adam Hughes to head coach, and he retooled the roster with transfers and late commits. The Terps’ 2018 ceiling wasn’t was it could have been, but it was still a solid group.

Maryland’s nine Big Ten wins last fall are a team record, and the Terps went 18-14 overall. They were once again right on the bubble for NCAAs, but they once again fell just short, extending the drought to 13 years.

Where it’s going

The Terps only graduated two seniors last year, and the majority of their production will be back. Assuming this group stays together, it could become even more of a threat in the coming years. Maryland’s 2019 roster features only three seniors, and the team’s biggest stars have multiple years of eligibility remaining. Mix in continued success on the recruiting trail, and special things could be in store.

The Big Ten will always make life difficult, though. The conference had seven teams ranked in the top 12 of the AVCA Coaches Poll at the end of last season, with an eighth coming in at No. 17. Four of the final eight teams standing were Big Ten squads, and Nebraska made it to the title game. Programs like Penn State, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois are formidable year in and year out. Maryland is a long way from joining that group, but it’s hoping to close the gap.

Names to know

When the five-star recruits followed their coach out the door, Erika Pritchard stayed in College Park. The Middletown, Maryland, native turned in a stellar sophomore season, recording a conference-best 4.32 kills per set, tallying 493 kills in total, chipping in 287 digs and earning a First Team All-Big Ten selection.

This summer, Pritchard and fellow rising junior Jada Gardner are representing the Terps in the Big Ten foreign tour of Japan. Teammate Katie Myers — a 2016 recruit who, due to injuries, is entering just her redshirt sophomore season — competed with the U.S. Collegiate National Team in Japan this May. The Terps also return libero Allegra Rivas, setter Nicole Alford and outside hitter Rainelle Jones, all new additions in 2018 who helped lead the Terps to the brink of the postseason. This group of players includes two juniors, two redshirt sophomores and two true sophomores.

The mission

That NCAA Tournament berth has been right within reach for two seasons now. This year, it’ll be the baseline expectation. With no Big Ten volleyball tournament, Maryland’s current core still doesn’t have any postseason experience, so a trip to NCAAs will pay its dividends in the long run as well. With the majority of the squad having multiple years left at Maryland, getting a taste of the big stage will make everyone hungrier for more of it.

It’s unclear what Maryland volleyball’s ceiling is, and how much lower it might be in the Big Ten than elsewhere. But Hughes and a talented group of players is determined to find out.