Late in the first set against No. 18 Southern California on Thursday, setter Taylor Smith committed a ball handling error. Three points later, she mistimed another pass.
After the second miscue, coach Steve Aird replaced the sophomore with Abigail Bentz, who had played just two sets entering the matchup. Bentz notched 12 assists against the Trojans. She followed up the unexpected display with 24 combined assists against Oklahoma and No. 7 Washington on Friday.
Maryland’s increased depth at setter gave Aird more flexibility, as he shifted around a young lineup to find optimal matchups. But Bentz’s appearance also highlighted the Terps’ ongoing search for a long-term answer at the position.
“I don’t care who plays,” Aird said. “I want to give us the best chance to win and if someone’s having a rough night, then these guys all practice hard all the time … and they should be looking to get in matches.”
Maryland opens its Big Ten schedule against Ohio State on Wednesday. In a conference featuring six top-25 programs, the Terps know applying necessary improvements from the past game is crucial to their future success.
The Terps’ setters finished the Maryland Challenge with four ball handling errors. Through 12 matches this season, the Terps have made 16 such miscues. Opponents have committed just nine ball handling letdowns.
“That’s something that all four setters that we have on the roster are working through,” Bentz said. “It’s mental as much as it is physical, and so every day when we come in early and stay late, it’s to get our hands ready to go and our head mentally ready to get that [error] number down.”
Since the end of the preseason, Bentz mostly worked with the scout team during practices, as setters Samantha Snyder and Smith worked with the starters. So, playing with the first-choice attackers this past weekend forced her to adapt.
She adjusted her passes mid-game as she learned different hitters’ preferences. The Shrewsbury, Pennsylvania, native welcomed feedback from the Terps attackers throughout her three matches.
But outside hitter Gia Milana feels communication between attackers and setters can still improve.
“If we have a better connection with them, and if they trust us that we’re going to be there in a spot, they’ll have a lot more confidence,” Milana said. “It’s a two-way street, for sure. I feel like the hitters should be more involved with our setters.”
Bentz has used her versatility to earn limited playing time in her three seasons in College Park. In her freshman year, the 5-foot-10 player checked in as an outside hitter after injuries left a gap.
In her natural setter position during Maryland’s first ranked test of the season, she didn’t feel overwhelmed.
“It’s kind of like she doesn’t notice what she’s playing for,” Milana said. “She’s so mentally strong, she’ll kill it. She’s very solid and she’s confident, and I feel like that’s all we needed at that point.”
Aird’s in-game change at setter helped the Terps upset Southern California. Entering Big Ten play, Bentz and other bench options will continue to serve as a safety net when starters struggle.
“It just feels great to help out your team,” Bentz said. “When you get to get in, it’s like a whole different feeling. You feel like you really got to help out.”