In Maryland volleyball’s past two games, it displayed the potential the young team might one day realize in the top-heavy Big Ten.
The Terps beat then-No. 15 Michigan — their first road win over a ranked team in program history — and followed that display with a convincing sweep over Ohio State, securing the most conference wins for them since joining the Big Ten.
But in its final weekend homestand, Maryland will face an uptick in talent. Against No. 3 Minnesota and No. 7 Wisconsin on back-to-back nights, the Terps will attempt to contend in contests that have looked far from even in the past. In four games against top-10 opponents this year, the Terps have yet to score 20 points in a set.
That disparity shows the difference between the good and elite squads in the annual powerhouse conference that is the Big Ten, which currently has seven teams in the top-25.
“They have different gears at times that makes them what they are,” coach Adam Hughes said.
When Maryland played Minnesota on Sept. 22, the team held an 18-16 advantage in the first set. But after the Golden Gophers called a timeout, they unleashed a 9-1 run on the Terps to close the frame that two Terps timeouts couldn’t slow down.
This game displayed the other level elite programs can reach, turning a close match into a blowout in just a short amount of time. The Big Ten’s most dangerous offensive team, Minnesota, ranks third in the NCAA with a .301 hitting percentage and ranks second with 15.08 kills per set.
Maryland hasn’t faced Wisconsin this season, but could be in for further difficulties trying to contend with middle blocker Dana Rettke on Saturday.
Rettke, who stands at 6-foot-8, is second in the NCAA with a .435 hitting percentage, a mark that leads the Big Ten by 33 percentage points. Rettke also leads the conference with 1.49 blocks per set.
Hughes recognized that his team might not be able to contain Rettke.
“I’m not sure you do,” Hughes said. “She’s one of the best, if not the best, offensive players we’ve seen in a while.”
The underclassmen-heavy Terps, now younger after the loss of four of their top five attackers in the offseason, are still learning to play together and compete in the Big Ten.
Despite the gauntlet facing them this weekend, the Terps are looking at the two matches as a learning experience, regardless of results.
“We just try to look at it as another opportunity to play really good teams and get better,” outside hitter Erika Pritchard said.
The Terps have had plenty of opportunities against top competition in conference play, facing seven ranked opponents in sixteen conference matchups so far. They haven’t had a stretch in conference play longer than three matches without playing a ranked foe.
The depth of quality opponents Maryland has faced will cut both ways for its NCAA tournament hopes. The difficult matchups have inflated the Terps’ number of losses, but they’ve also built a strong strength of schedule.
The Terps have already surpassed their conference win total from last season with eight, but are still one win shy of their 18 overall last season. Maryland was the first team left out of the NCAA tournament field a year ago.
While the top-10 teams the Terps will face this weekend have all but secured a spot in the tournament, there’s still more to play for, and Hughes is preparing his team for the challenge.
“What makes this time of year really interesting is that everyone is battling for different things,” Hughes said. “Minnesota is battling for a share of the Big Ten title, and Wisconsin is trying to get a top-four seed, and for us, we’re trying to see if we can make a run at getting in the tournament.”