Maryland volleyball is preparing for the grind of Big Ten play

Setter Nicole Alford sets the ball for a strike in Maryland volleyball’s 2-3 win to Ohio State at XFINITY Pavilion on Sept. 29, 2018. (Frances Moyonero/The Diamondback)

On Friday night, Maryland volleyball took South Carolina to five sets in front of the Gamecocks’ home crowd in Columbia. However, the Terps lost that decisive frame, 15-12, marking their fourth five-set loss this season.

The team rounded out its nonconference slate by going 2-1 in the Gamecock Invitational, rebounding from Friday’s loss to South Carolina with wins over Kennesaw State and Appalachian State to secure an 8-4 record. It’s a slight step back from the 11-1 and 9-3 nonconference records the Terps posted in 2017 and 2018, respectively.

But after posting 18-14 final records those two seasons and ending on the wrong side of the NCAA tournament bubble both times, there’s more pressure applied to Big Ten play to make up distance and put together a worthy NCAA tournament resume.

So as conference play begins Wednesday at Xfinity Center against Ohio State — the beginning of a 20-match slog in the country’s best conference — looking back at close losses such as South Carolina leaves a feeling of what could have been.

[Read more: With Nicole Alford back from injury, Maryland volleyball hopes it can take the next step]

“It’s tough to overlook that we’re 10 points away from being undefeated,” coach Adam Hughes said. “At the same time, we had opportunities and we weren’t able to capitalize.”

At the UTSA Classic in early September, Hughes’ squad saw two of those opportunities slip away, dropping five-game matches to Texas Rio-Grande Valley and Houston by a combined five points. Then, a 3-2 loss to George Mason the following weekend preceded the narrow loss to the Gamecocks.

But even though it wasn’t the nonconference results they wanted, the Terps know they can’t look in the past. Playing in a juggernaut conference, one in which a 9-11 output in 2018 was Maryland’s best finish, the team’s Big Ten record may help sway the selection committee.

Still, the Terps try not to overthink the program’s 13-year absence from postseason play.

[Read more: Maryland volleyball secures doubleheader sweep with two 3-0 wins in Gamecock Invitational]

“We’re not thinking about the tournament every game,” setter Nicole Alford said. “Obviously that’s our end goal, but it’s not our focus before a match. Our focus is winning every match, and playing really good volleyball. If we do that, then we can reach our goal.”

Maryland’s Big Ten schedule consists of nine matches against current top-25 teams. The Terps won’t face one of those teams until they meet No. 5 Penn State in University Park on Oct. 11.

Ohio State comes into Wednesday’s match on a four-match winning streak, which includes a 3-0 showing at the Buckeye Invite. And while the Buckeyes travel to College Park at 7-5 overall, there are no easy matches when it comes to the Big Ten.

“It’s just such a grind because you really don’t have a single team that is weak,” Hughes said.

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