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Maryland volleyball series preview: Northwestern

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The Terps will honor their seniors in the final home series against Northwestern.

Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics

This season has presented several highs and lows for the Maryland volleyball team.

A difficult winless start to its season was followed by a bout with coronavirus-related cancellations. After the team emerged from its week off, a three-game win streak commenced before the Terrapins dropped four straight.

The most recent losses came during a home-and-away series versus Rutgers, but Maryland will aim to end its tumultuous season on a high note against Northwestern on Friday and Saturday.

“When you get closer to the end of the season, you put things in perspective and this year has been one of like no other,” head coach Adam Hughes said. “I think they’re proud of what they’ve been able to accomplish.”

Both games will be streamed on BTN Plus at 6 p.m., in what will be the final send-off for its group of seniors. Expect the home crowd to play a major part in the last two games of the season.

Northwestern Wildcats (3-5 Big Ten)

Head coach Shane Davis has coached the Wildcats in just eight games this season thanks to two separate COVID-19 pauses. Hopes were high in year five for Davis, with the team slowly climbing up the Big Ten standings each season he has been in Evanston. Two straight set victories over Rutgers to start the season was followed by a three-week pause.

Returning on Feb. 19 against Purdue, another pause began after a five-set victory over Iowa eight days later. Back once again, Northwestern lost twice to No. 4 Minnesota last weekend and will finish the year out against the Terps.

Players to know

Sophomore outside hitter Temi Thomas-Ailara (No. 12) — The in-state product has accumulated 121 kills over just eight games, good for a 4.03 per set mark. If it hadn’t been for the coronavirus issues within the program, the sophomore could have reached All-Big Ten numbers this year. Thomas-Ailara compiled a .480 hitting percentage in game one, followed by a .344 percentage — two of her three highest on the season — before the three-week hiatus stifled her strong start to 2021.

Junior libero Megan Miller (No. 23) — Miller is one of three Wildcats that has played in every set this season, a testament to her durability as the team’s starting libero. In her first year with Northwestern after transferring from the prestigious Nebraska program, Miller has been an energy boost to her team throughout the pauses and restarts. Her 81 digs lead the team, while her nine service aces place just one spot behind first on the team. Over a full season, expect Miller to be one of the conference’s best liberos.

Redshirt sophomore outside hitter Abryanna Cannon (No. 2) — Maybe the best all-around player on Northwestern, Cannon has made the most of the stunted season in her first year back from injury. As a freshman in 2018, Cannon was second on the team in kills with 243, a place she find herself in this year behind Thomas-Ailara. But Cannon’s play spans well past the offensive attack. On defense, she boasts a solid 14 total blocks, while also supplying the second most digs on the team with 76. On top of that, Cannon is also the team leader in aces (10).

Three things to watch

1. How will Maryland’s seniors bid their final farewell? For Nicole Alford, Erika Pritchard, Sam Burgio, Hailey Rubino and Chloe Prejean, Saturday will be their final collegiate volleyball game. It's a bittersweet moment that will be fueled by a semi-normal senior day, a ceremony that the players have debated on who will cry the most.

“I think Erika and I are very much people who you can see our emotions, we’re not really good at hiding them,” Burgio said. “It’s just so crazy at the same time scary and exciting because not that volleyball is our life but it created a structure.”

Emotions will be at an all-time high in these final two games for the seniors. It will be interesting to see how they perform with so much pressure to succeed on their shoulders.

2. Which Maryland will come out for its final game of the season? There have been a lot of different masks for the Terps this season. The 0-8 start featured a team that started cold and ended hot but couldn’t come up with sets in the end. The middle of the season saw a team that was hungry on the offensive end, with young players stepping up and coming into their own. This last two-week stretch has been rather disappointing on the offensive end, however, so there’s really no telling as to what team will show up in the finale against Northwestern.

3. What positives will arise in a lost season? The story for Maryland this season has been the play of its youngsters and the emergence of new stars. While starters Alford, Pritchard and Burgio are on their way out, Laila Ricks, Sydney Dowler and Sam Csire have shown that they can fill in admirably next season. Record wise the Terps may have been a disappointment, but player development was a major bright spot for the future of this program.

“It’s the journey and the growth that I think is most important,” Hughes said. Pritchard added, “I just kind of want to end it on a good note and leave it all out there and finish strong with my teammates.”