Entering the courtyard of a rural community in Chiclayo, Peru, local school kids waved with excitement as they held up their welcome signs for Maryland volleyball outside hitter Erika Pritchard and the rest of her Frederick Christian Fellowship mission group.
“Bienvenidos hermanos misioneros” read one of the signs, as the smiling children of the Chiclayo community embraced Pritchard. For the next hour, they played games, made crafts and shared Bible stories.
“I loved getting close with the people there, especially the kids. They always had a smile on their face and were filled with so much love,” Pritchard said. “I remember them running up to me and wanting me to pick them up and hold them. It gave me a lot of perspective being there.”
Working with the Chiclayo community was a stark contrast to Pritchard’s original plans for the summer, as before the coronavirus pandemic, the senior had clinched a spot on the 2020 Women’s Collegiate National Gold Team.
Given the global health concerns, that opportunity was no longer available. But, Pritchard welcomed the opportunities presented to her elsewhere which is something that she’s done throughout her career as she has used her faith as a coping mechanism ahead of various challenges.
“I think that having that outlook on life helps me to be a better person, and ultimately vulnerable player and teammate,” Pritchard said. “It kind of flows in every area of my life.”
As the Maryland volleyball season came to a close on April 3 after a hard-fought five-set defeat by the hands of Northwestern, the Terrapin family said goodbye to one of its brightest stars.
This year has been unlike any other for the in-state outside hitter, but the senior’s whole career has been fueled by her motivation to make good for the people closest to her, whether those companions are on or off the court.
Pritchard’s humble beginnings in the sport began in middle school when her parents encouraged her to go to a volleyball camp at a local high school. After the first day, wearing tall socks tied around her knees to simulate knee pads, Pritchard came home with not just bruises all up and down her arms, but a newfound love for the sport as well.
Her father, Mike Pritchard, said that it took a bit for Pritchard to find her bearings, but once she got comfortable with the sport, she was able to break off the training wheels and flourish.
“I think it was important for us that Pritchard drove her passion and desire,” Mike Pritchard said. “Once Erika discovered volleyball, we were going to do anything that we could to really help her.”
Pritchard joined the Middletown High School varsity team as a middle school manager. While with the team, Pritchard formed a bond with Middletown coach Aubrey Pfau, who encouraged her to play for the Metro American Volleyball Club.
When it came time to play at the next level at Maryland, Pritchard’s freshman year presented the typical flurry of obstacles that come with such drastic change. She had to learn on the fly and deal with the plethora of demands that were thrown at her, especially when going up against imposing talents across the Big Ten.
“I was like a deer in headlights at certain times,” Pritchard said. “I had a lot of support from my teammates ... a lot of seniors like Hailey Murray and Samantha Drechsel took me under their wing.”
Pritchard taught herself to deal with challenging situations by staying positive and remaining true to herself. After a freshman year of building up her confidence, a new challenge came in the form of head coach Steve Aird’s departure from the program.
“The original four of [middle blocker Jada Gardner, libero Sam Burgio and setter Chloe Prejean] decided to stay and keep building this program” Pritchard said in response to the change. “We really tried to work hard to build the program and put in our best work.”
As Adam Hughes assumed the head coaching role, Pritchard bought into the program by upping her game to an All-Big Ten level. Her 493 kills were the second most in a single season in Maryland history. She helped guide the Terps to an 18-14 record, including 9-11 in the Big Ten that year, the team’s best record since joining the conference in 2014.
That drive continued into her junior season, where she once again set the Big Ten on fire. Pritchard led the team in kills with 413 on a 3.28 per set pace.
Well over a thousand kills later, and the star Terrapin entered the 2020 offseason looking to rewrite Maryland history in year four. That was until the coronavirus pandemic seemed to derail those prospects, presenting her with another roadblock to overcome.
“Whether we had a season or not, I wanted to be ready and get my body physically ready to be as strong and fit as possible,” Pritchard said. “I chose to slow down and figure out how I can grow out of this and see it as a benefit and advantage, and take advantage of the time that I had.”
The extra-time off ended with opening match versus Ohio State on Jan. 22, 419 days after the 2019 season finale. Despite the long layoff, Pritchard picked up right where she left off.
The senior picked up 30 kills over the opening weekend as she aimed to continue to climb up the record books. After starting the season seventh all-time in kills in school history, Pritchard entered the second leg against Iowa on March 13, trailing Adreené Elliott (2011-15) by just one kill. She passed Elliott with two kills in the opening three scores, cementing her legacy and helping cap off the Terps’ best stretch of this season while now ranking second in the record books behind Carey Brennan (1999-02) in kills.
Although the peculiar spring season didn’t go the direction the Terps had hoped was, the impact Pritchard had on the future of the Terrapin program goes far beyond her efforts on the box score.
“I think in the last 18 months her big growth is just understanding ‘I don’t want to be just a one dimensional player. I want to be someone who can lead by doing a lot of things,’” Hughes said. “She wants to come to practice every day with the opportunity to refine her skills and I think that just shows some of the youngsters that you gotta show up everyday.”
Underclassmen were the story for the Terps this year, with the trio of star freshman (Laila Ricks, Sydney Dowler and Sam Csire) becoming integral parts of the rotation as they gained guidance under Pritchard as they mirrored the senior’s own personal experiences in adjusting to the collegiate level.
“We talk a lot about what’s working, what’s not working and I think communication between one another is just what really builds a bond between us,” Csire said.
Sophomore outside hitter Rebekah Rath added, “She always has my back and she showed me a lot about college volleyball that I didn’t know.”
Pritchard has come a long way since tying socks to her knees and coming home with bruises all up and down her arms. She has become a leader on and off the court and has solidified her legacy among the all-time great Terps to grace the volleyball court.
“Her tough work ethic, talent and inner drive have brought many rewards along the way,” Erika’s mother, Angela Pritchard said. “It’s exciting to think about her future because she always wants to grow and develop as an athlete and person.”
The in-state product departs from College Park as the program’s all-time points leader (1,790) and has stayed true to her faith along the way.
In June 2019, Pritchard, along with Gardner, traveled to Japan for the Big Ten Foreign Tour, where a select group of the conference’s elite talent competed in the backdrop of the highly-developed Japanese culture.
Pritchard experienced opposite ends of the spectrum upon joining her ministry in Peru this past summer. Seeing the disparity between the two countries reinstated her mindset of being the light in other’s lives.
Pritchard has built her career around connecting with people and helping those around her in any way she can. On top of that, looking at the bigger picture during trying moments of her life have helped pave the way for her innate selflessness on and off the court.
Whether it be in front of a raucous crowd at the Xfinity Center Pavilion or building a bond with the children of Chiclayo, Pritchard has allowed her trust in herself and her faith to guide her through anything.
“It’s exciting to see Erika developing her faith and getting close to God. And with that, comes looking out for her teammates and being the best person that she can be,” Angela Pritchard said. “How she handles herself on and off the court and really just being the light that she strives to be to build others up. That’s sort of the core of who she is.”