The Maryland volleyball team clinched NCAA tournament eligibility with an upset win against No. 17 Purdue on Sunday — its 16th victory of the season — leading to celebrations from the coaching staff.
But head coach Steve Aird said afterward his team doesn’t “have the luxury of popping champagne like [they’ve] arrived.”
While the Terps have reached their highest single-season win total in Aird’s four years in College Park, his squad has never faced a gauntlet like the one it’ll play over the next two weekends. As Maryland tries to make the tournament for the first time since 2005, the upcoming stretch could derail its momentum.
Four straight road matches against top-10 programs will give the Terps a glimpse at what to expect should they make postseason play.
“If you do make it, you’ve already seen the best of the best,” setter Abigail Bentz said. “It can’t get any better than what you’ve already seen.”
Starting against No. 5 Minnesota on Friday, Maryland’s daunting schedule continues at No. 8 Wisconsin on Saturday before matchups at No. 7 Nebraska and No. 1 Penn State the following week. Each team is ranked in the top eight of RPI.
In the NCAA volleyball committee’s top-10 rankings for the tournament, released Wednesday, Penn State, Nebraska and Minnesota are the top three seeds.
“We can play great and still lose all of those matches,” Aird said. “We’re never going to win these stretches of games until we train and keep getting better and get some more experience, and the only way to get experience is going to play the matches.”
Last year, Ohio State was tied for seventh in the Big Ten yet still made the tournament. Maryland rests in ninth place this season with a 5-7 conference record. The upset over the Boilermakers helped the Terps’ resume, but finishing with 16 wins won’t result in a comfortable Selection Sunday.
Maryland will play the Buckeyes at Xfinity Center on Nov. 22. The Terps bested then-ranked Ohio State at home in 2015 and 2016. This year, the Buckeyes are 12-11.
Maryland closes its conference slate Nov. 24 against Northwestern, a team it beat in five sets earlier this season.
“[Purdue] was a huge win to get us into a more certain spot,” Bentz said. “But I think we have to keep in mind that we aren’t going to make [the tournament] unless we keep going every single game trying to get better, because we can get some wins at the end [of the season].”
Aird expects the Big Ten to have plenty of representatives in the tournament again this year, but he isn’t worried about Maryland’s outlook with eight games remaining. Instead, he wants to focus on the steady improvement on his underclassmen-heavy roster.
Should the Terps miss out on the NCAA tournament, the National Invitational Volleyball Championship — modeled after college basketball’s NIT — could serve as a backup option. However, the NIVC has contacted only Northwestern and Iowa from the Big Ten, two teams below Maryland in the standings, according to a Thursday release.
Bentz said making the NCAA tournament has been a goal of the team each of her three seasons.
“Now that we picked off Purdue, we’re now just looking for our next game to pick off,” opposite/outside hitter Samantha Drechsel said. “After we get through [the next four matches], we can take on anything.”