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Maryland volleyball series preview: Illinois

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Riding high on a three game win streak, the Terps will hit the road to play the Fighting Illini.

Photo by @TerpsVolleyball

Maryland volleyball looked like an entirely new team this past weekend against Iowa. In the first leg of the weekend series, Maryland had a season-high .276 hitting percentage. The Terps topped that the next day with a .349 hitting percentage to complete the series sweep.

Playing its best volleyball of the season, Maryland will look to ride the momentum of the previous weekend against the Fighting Illini. Maryland has not beaten Illinois since joining the Big Ten in 2014, only winning two sets in eight matchups.

“We’re trying to climb the ladder,” head coach Adam Hughes said. “[Illinois] has a long history and we respect them for that, but we’re trying to grow that respect for ourselves and we have to be able to compete against these teams.”

Game one on Friday will be at 8 p.m., followed by Saturday’s matchup at 6 p.m. Both will be available to watch on BTN Plus.

Illinois Fighting Illini (2-10 Big Ten)

Head coach Chris Tamas is in his fourth season with Illinois and has nearly led the Fighting Illini to the top of the mountain. His second season in 2018 was magical, as the team tallied a 32-4 record and made it all the way to the Final Four — the fourth appearance in the program history. Tamas has clinched a berth in the NCAA Tournament all three years at the helm, but is struggling to replicate his past success in 2021.

The Fighting Illini sit at 2-10 and are riding a 10-game losing streak. Illinois swept Iowa the first week of the season, but have faltered in a challenging schedule against the Big Ten’s top teams. They haven’t backed down during this losing streak, however, recently pushing No. 5 Minnesota to five sets on March 12.

Players to know

Senior outside hitter Megan Cooney (No. 15) — Cooney started just five matches in 2019, but placed second on the team in kills behind All-Big Ten First Teamer Jacqueline Quade. With Quade off to UCLA to play beach volleyball, Cooney has taken over as the leader of the offense for Illinois this season. The senior averages 3.53 kills per set, good for ninth in the Big Ten. Cooney has also taken strides in other categories, cumulating 13 service aces, 85 digs and 25 blocks.

Junior defensive specialist Taylor Kuper (No. 3) — Obviously a starting defensive specialist should be expected to be leading their team in digs, but Kuper has been collecting them at a torrid pace this season. Averaging 4.55 per set, she leads the Big Ten in digs per set by .18 of a dig. Kuper has four games of at least 20, including a career-high 29 against Minnesota on Mar. 12. Not only is the junior a menace on defense, but she has been the Big Ten’s leader in service aces, averaging 0.62 per set on 29 total.

Freshman outside hitter Raina Terry (No. 12) — As Cooney has stepped into Quade’s role on the offense, Terry has supplanted Cooney as the team’s number two option. The freshman from Marengo, Ohio, is second on the team with 126 kills despite a slow start to the season. Illinois leads the conference in service aces per set, and Terry has been an excellent complementary piece with Kuper in that department. Seventh in the conference with 0.36 per set, Terry has provided the Fighting Illini with another weapon on the serve this year.

Three things to know

1. Can Maryland keep the win streak alive? Currently riding a three-game win streak, Maryland’s road journey to Champaign, Illinois will be its toughest test yet. Although the Fighting Illini are in the midst of a 10-game losing streak after starting the year 2-0, they recently put up a fight in a five-set loss to No. 5 Minnesota.

“They’re a very aggressive team and I think that’s one thing that stands out,” Hughes said. “We know they’re going to be throwing some haymakers at us ... I think that’s one thing we’re trying to focus on, see if we can be good to serve and pass.”

2. Illinois has the highest service ace per set mark in the Big Ten. If Maryland hopes to continue its winning ways, they will have to combat the Fighting Illini’s conference leading 1.87 service ace per set average. Fighting back with the service ace may be challenging, as Illinois also prevents the ace to the tune of a 0.98 allowance average, good for second in the conference. Maryland could look to counter with its defining defense, but the offense is hoping to continue riding a hot hand into the matchup.

“Being in the 6-2 gives us a lot more options,” setter Sydney Dowler said. “I think all of our hitters have a ton of trust in us and it gives us a great opportunity to run three hitters at all times.”

3. How will the Terps respond without any juice from the fans? Last week’s dominant showing was definitely a testament to Maryland’s performance on the court, but it certainly helped being fueled by the raucous crowd in attendance at the Pavilion at the Xfinity Center. The tides turn this week, however, the Terps will not have that energy boost to hold its opponents in purgatory on the road. Middle blocker Rainelle Jones doesn’t believe it will hinder Maryland’s momentum.

“Definitely focusing on each other and bringing our own type of energy that we’ve been bringing over in the past couple games,” Jones said.