Ahead of the Gamecock Invitational this weekend, Maryland volleyball has eased into the season, with matchups offering a chance for coach Adam Hughes and company to assess where the team needed to improve.
Its toughest tests so far have been Kansas State and Princeton — squads that finished at No. 51 and No. 52, respectively, last year in RPI, a ranking system that balances wins and losses with strength of schedule — and the Terps have dispatched both.
But Maryland stumbled against UT-Rio Grande Valley (No. 72), Houston (No. 146) and George Mason (No. 238), revealing there is still room for improvement before the team faces the Big Ten juggernauts.
So heading into its three-match schedule in Columbia, South Carolina, the Terps are preparing for the most difficult — and last remaining — test before conference play begins, hoping to glean something from this weekend to propel them further.
“This weekend will be very challenging. South Carolina should have a great crowd, so that will help us prepare for Big Ten play,” Hughes said. “This will be a step up in competition level across the board.”
Last year, South Carolina ranked No. 32 in RPI and made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament. The Gamecocks haven’t started 2019 as well, though, entering Friday’s matchup with Maryland at 5-4, including a straight-sets loss to No. 9 Wisconsin.
Kennesaw State and Appalachian State both finished with more than 20 wins last season, setting up a difficult weekend.
“We need to go out and compete and play some Maryland volleyball,” middle blocker Katie Myers said.
Getting to this point with a 6-3 record, the Terps have battled through long weekends, a staple of a nonconference slate. On Saturday against Princeton and George Mason, Maryland played 10 sets combined.
The team has already played six five-set matches this season, tying its total from all of 2018, testing its stamina and durability.
“I think they’ve done a pretty good job of managing the long matches,” Hughes said. “We’re just trying to get back to full health. This time of year we’re starting to get a little beat up.”
Full health would mean the return of setter Nicole Alford, who led the Terps with 1,117 assists last season. Alford has missed every match so far this season with a foot injury, but she has begun participating in select drills during practice, and the team is hopeful she will return prior to the Big Ten season.
And with one more weekend before the team begins play against conference opponents, Maryland hopes to build off the bright spots it had during its 2-1 weekend in College Park. Myers stood out over the weekend, collecting a season-high four aces against Arkansas before being crowned MVP of the tournament.
Outside hitter Rebekah Rath averaged a hitting percentage of .301 and amassed 53 kills for the weekend, which just edged out outside hitter Erika Pritchard’s total of 50. Rath now has posted double-digit kill totals in seven of the Terps’ first nine matches.
“I’ll continue to be aggressive going forward because it worked for me last weekend,” Rath said.
Still, there were disappointing takeaways from last weekend. Maryland managed double-digit service errors in each of its three matches, and the Terps hit .222 to lose against the Patriots.
But with another nonconference tournament ahead, Maryland can work out the kinks that have made themselves evident so far this season.
“We feel like we could have executed better,” Rath said, “but we’re working on that aspect of the game.”