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Maryland volleyball weekend preview: Maryland Invitational

The Terps welcome Arkansas, George Mason and Princeton to College Park this weekend

@TerpsVolleyball

After competing in away tournaments for two consecutive weekends, Maryland volleyball hosts the Maryland Invitational starting Friday night.

The Terps will face Arkansas, George Mason and Princeton in the tournament.

Maryland is still without junior setter Nicole Alford, who has been injured to start the season. Hughes said her timetable to return is unknown, but her status is improving. So far, it’s been difficult to replace her on the floor, both on the blocking and assisting side — something that the team has been working on in practice.

In Alford’s place, players like Jones and redshirt sophomore middle blocker Katie Myers have stepped up on the blocking end. On the assisting end, it’s been assist by committee, a trio of Samantha Snyder, Taylor Smith and recently, Chloe Prejean. Maryland definitely misses Alford in the rotation, but the trip has stepped up big time. That starts in practice.

“In the beginning of practice, we would all work together to try to adjust to things that we usually aren’t used to playing with,” Jones said.

Maryland is halfway done with its nonconference tournaments and Big Ten play is approaching fast. A 4-2 record isn’t exactly where the Terps want to be now, but they know where they need to be if they want to make it to the postseason.

“I feel like last year, during [nonconference play], we took a step back. We know that a lot of those losses in [nonconference play] last year could’ve been the difference in us making the tournament,” libero Allegra Rivas said. “I feel like we’re working really hard in [nonconference play] so that we can make the tournament this year.”

Here’s what to expect this weekend.

Arkansas (4-3) Friday ay 7 p.m.

Coming into the season, the Razorbacks needed to find a way to fill the void left by middle blocker Kelly O’Brien and defender Okiana Valle. They’ve built up from their youth with freshman outside hitter Jillian Gillen and sophomore middle blocker Ellease Crumpton.

Gillen leads the team with 103 kills 56 digs. Crumpton leads the team in total blocks with 26. Setters Gracie Ryan and Rachel Rippee have split assisting duties, combining for 255 assists so far.

Gillen is one of three Razorbacks with at least 50 digs this season, so they have options on the back line. However, Arkansas’ .192 hitting percentage as a team isn’t great against a Maryland team that has hit .226 so far, with opponents hitting just .156.

The Razorbacks are 1-3 in their last four matches, including two straight sweeps at the hands of West Virginia and San Diego, who currently has 108 points in the AVCA Coaches Poll.

George Mason (2-4) Saturday at 1 p.m.

It’s been a rough go so far for the Patriots after losing their best defender in libero Catie Espinoza, who led with 452 digs last season.

They’ve lost four graduating seniors, but they brought in six freshman while retaining some of the best players on their roster, like outside hitter Bailey Williams, opposite hitter ShaLi Niu, middle blocker Peyton Ehmke and setter Emily Konchan.

Williams and Niu have been the catalysts of the George Mason attack, with 137 combined kills. Both are averaging over three kills a set. Setter Erin Derick has stepped up on the assisting end, leading the team with 173.

The Patriots are 2-1 in their last three matches with a evenly dispersed attack thus far. They are also looking for back to back double-digit win seasons since 2009-10. Despite their losing record, they will be a tough opponent for the Terps on Saturday afternoon.

Princeton (0-3) Saturday at 7 p.m.

This is the first time since 2009 that the Tigers have started out the season 0-3, a far cry from 18+ wins in each of the past three seasons. It’s been a rocky start to say the least for Princeton.

This year’s senior class is the backbone of Princeton’s attack and defense, specifically setter Jessie Harris and outside hitters Devon Peterkin and Maggie O’Connell.

However, they’ve struggled so far as has the rest of the team, who is hitting .145 on the season. They hit .256 as a team last season, but recent success hasn't translated.

Even more surprising, the Tigers have won two sets so far, losing to Virginia and Rutgers in four sets and getting swept by Towson. However, four Tigers have double-digit kills and digs and two have double-digit assists.

That makes this start a definite shock, but that just means the Tigers will be hungry for their first win of the season this weekend. The Terps have to be on their toes against a familiar foe they lost too in a five-setter at the Temple Invite last September.

Three things to watch

1. How Chloe Prejean will be used in the rotation. Prejean got her first college action last weekend against UTSA, becoming the third Terp to become a main setter with the absence of Nicole Alford. Her presence this weekend all depends on how Hughes will use her, or whether he will continue to rely on Snyder and Smith.

2. Katie Myers. Myers was selected to the UTSA Classic All-Tournament Team after recording 38 kills, 20 blocks and six aces over the weekend. The question is: can she keep up the same level of success at home this weekend?

3. Home-court advantage. It’s home sweet home for the Terps when they come back to College Park, especially after a two week hiatus with a home game against Howard in the mix. It’s been 11 days since Maryland last played a home match, so expect the crowds to be raucous this weekend.

“Staying at home is always great. The crowd, the music, the vibes and stuff,” middle blocker Rainelle Jones said. “We do get a lot more practicing instead of focusing on traveling and recovering our bodies. We can just focus more on volleyball.”