Maryland volleyball has gone from the bottom of the Big Ten to an NCAA Tournament-caliber team in just a few seasons, missing the dance as one of the “First Four Out” in each of the last two years.
Last year, the Terps finished with a program-best 9-11 record in conference play and equaled their 18-14 overall record from 2017. The 2018 campaign was arguably the best in the program’s short time in the Big Ten, defeating a ranked opponent on the road for the first time in team history — a sweep at No. 15 Michigan.
The Terps jumped up to No. 10 in the Big Ten preseason poll from No. 13 last season, and Erika Pritchard was named the first All-Big Ten preseason honoree in program history. The conference and the nation is slowly starting to recognize the potential of Maryland. Here’s what to expect this season.
Maryland lost two key seniors coming into 2019 — outside hitter Liz Twilley and defensive specialist/libero Abigail Bentz. Twilley, after being benched most of the 2017 season, had a resurgence in 2018, finishing second on the team with 288 kills and 2.59 kills per set. She was Maryland’s second-best offensive player and her loss will definitely be felt this season.
However, the Terps have plenty of young talent to step up and fill the hole she left. Hughes will rely upon players like Katie Myers, Rainelle Jones and Jada Gardner to up their game in Twilley’s absence.
Bentz complimented Twilley on defense, finishing fourth on the team with 166 digs last season. Her 1.71 digs per set will need to be filled by players like juniors Nicole Alford and Samantha Burgio. The two combined for 364 digs last season, but with Bentz gone, they will be tasked with taking a more active role on the defensive end.
Twilley also had 51 total blocks last season, fifth-best on the team. A healthy Gardner will eat up those blocks and incoming freshman Cara Lewis will be up at the net a lot this season.
Maryland was able to retain the bulk of its roster, despite losing two key assets. That starts with 2018 All-Big Ten First Team honoree Erika Pritchard, who led the conference with 4.32 kills per set last season while also finishing fifth in the conference with 493 total kills. She was also second on the team with 287 digs for an average of 2.52 digs per set.
Pritchard came into her own last season and became a solid all-around player while dominating at the net. She also had 65 total blocks last season and with her name now on the map in the Big Ten, she’s poised to have an All-American type season.
While Pritchard dominating at the net, libero Allegra Rivas dominated on the back line. Now into her sophomore season, Rivas is Maryland’s best player on defense. She finished seventh in the Big Ten with 522 digs last season, 4.58 digs per set. If Maryland can get the same production out of her, she has the potential of earning conference honors by season’s end.
The Terps run much deeper than that. Helping out with Pritchard’s 493 kills was Alford, who’s 1,117 assists were the most of any Terp since 2011. Her total assists and 9.80 assists per set were both ninth in the conference. Going into her junior season, Alford is now one of the more veteran players and her experience will prove to be extremely valuable.
At the service line, middle blocker Myers takes her Big Ten-leading 53 service aces and 0.46 aces per set, finishing top-15 in the nation in both categories. She was also third on the team with 210 kills. Myers became a force on the serve out of nowhere and it made a big difference in Maryland’s offensive game.
Sophomore middle blocker Jones and redshirt sophomore middle blocker Gardner are worth watching out for. Jones made her living at the net, recording 169 kills and 108 total blocks, 0.95 per set. She made an immediate impact as a freshman and her ceiling is high.
In 2018, Gardner suffered an unfortunate season-ending injury prior to conference play. However, she recorded 91 kills in 43 sets played, an average of 2.12 kills per set, an encouraging number as she looks to stay healthy in 2019.
Along with retaining most of their 2018 unit, Maryland added four new players to their 2019 roster — three freshmen and a sophomore transfer.
Sophomore Maddie Naumann joined the team in January, transferring from Miami (FL) where she recorded 44 digs in 29 sets played. Despite limited playing time, Naumann joins the team as a back-line specialist.
She joins the freshman trio of outside hitter Rebekah Rath, defensive specialist Lexy Finnerty and middle blocker Lewis.
Rath was a three-time Division 9A Florida Offensive Player of the Year, reclassifying into the 2019 class. Finnerty was the captain of her La Costa Canyon team in her junior and senior years, and that experience playing on the back line will be important down the road.
Lewis, the lone newcomer from in-state, has Terrapin blood as both her parents graduated from Maryland. Her father, Cedric, played on the men’s basketball team from 1987-91. She led her high school team in blocks, something Maryland will surely benefit from.
Maryland begins its non conference schedule with four tournaments and a home match against Howard. Their toughest nonconference opponent is South Carolina, who received six points in the preseason AVCA Coaches Poll.
It only gets tougher from there, as half of Maryland’s conference games are against all seven Big Ten teams currently ranked in the preseason poll, including home-and-homes with No. 2 Nebraska and No. 5 Wisconsin and a home match against No. 3 Minnesota.
Some highlights of the rest of their Big Ten schedule are home matches against No. 15 Michigan and road matches against No. 17 Purdue, Iowa and the aforementioned Spartans.
The Terps begin their season on Saturday at the Wolfpack Invitational, playing Austin Peay at 2 p.m. and Kansas State at 7 p.m.
These two matches are good early tests for this tournament-ready Terps team not looking to settle for “First Four Out” three years running.