Maryland volleyball enters 2023 with a goal they’ve had since Adam Hughes took over as head coach: reach the NCAA tournament.

But the Terps’ coach, who has been with the program since 2018, strives for more than guiding Maryland to its first postseason since 2005. Hughes’ vision is to turn Maryland into an elite program, and bit by bit, the pieces are falling into place.

Maryland has established itself as one of the premier defensive units in college volleyball, leading the NCAA in blocking the past two seasons. On top of four returning players who started at least 27 matches last season, the Terps brought in a respected assistant coach, players from the transfer portal and an incoming freshman class.

New assistant coach Ryan Ammerman brings acute insight into the nuances of men’s volleyball, a fresh perspective Hughes admires. Ammerman has coaching experience at the club, collegiate and international levels and already found his voice within Maryland’s staff.

“Sometimes he agrees with what we’re doing, and sometimes he challenges us to say, ‘Hey, I think we should try this and be a little bit different,’” Hughes said. “I’m happy that he’s able to be confident enough to challenge us to be better.”

The Terps also nabbed two veteran leaders from the transfer portal in defensive specialist Lilly Gunter and pin hitter Samantha Schnitta. Gunter led Mississippi State with 453 digs last season and was named SEC Defensive Player of the Week twice in 2022. She is a candidate to become Maryland’s next libero after Milan Gomillion transferred to Virginia in June.

[Maryland volleyball releases 2023 schedule]

Schnitta racked up 131 kills in just 54 sets for Ole Miss in 2022 and possesses a searing left serve that no Terp had in their arsenal last season.

Gunter and Schnitta’s value extends beyond the court. Both helped their former programs reach the NCAA tournament and are good guides for a Terps team searching for its own postseason berth, Hughes said.

“We’ve focused a lot this preseason on unity,” Schnitta said. “That was a big part of the ‘21 [NCAA tournament] team at Ole Miss.”

Maryland’s four freshmen provide the Terps with a layer of depth that they lacked a season ago.

Jonna Spohn was a 2022 AVCA All-American and forms a capable duo at libero with Alex McGillivray. Middle blocker Eva Rohrbach, a top 25 prospect in the class of 2023 by Prep Volleyball, is already playing like a veteran, Hughes said. Flint Hill product Sydney Bryant was a Prep Volleyball Class Top 150 Prospect and joins sophomore Laila Ivey as a promising outside hitter.

Hughes retains most of last season’s core, headlined by seniors Sam Csire, Laila Ricks, Sydney Dowler and Anastasia Russ.

Russ is the new centerpiece of the Terps’ vaunted front row after Rainelle Jones, Maryland’s all-time leading blocker, graduated. Russ, Ricks and Dowler each tallied triple-digit blocks in 2022, and Russ’ 182 in the regular season led the NCAA. Csire, Ricks, Dowler, Russ and Ivey accounted for 82 percent of the team’s kills in 2022.

[Maryland volleyball relied on defense, depth throughout hard-fought 2022 season]

Maryland’s blend of established leadership, veteran additions and talented freshmen can build on the elite flashes last season’s team displayed.

Last October, the Terps swept three consecutive Big Ten matches, punctuated by an upset over No. 9 Purdue, the program’s first top-10 victory away from College Park as a member of the conference. A month later, Maryland stunned No. 5 Ohio State in College Park, giving the Terps top-10 wins at home and on the road in the same season for the first time in program history.

“That just gets us a lot of confidence going into this next season,” Csire said. “It’s like we can play with anybody at any time.”

This year’s schedule offers plenty of opportunities to stack more signature wins.

Last season’s NCAA tournament teams – Miami and Florida Gulf Coast – headline the Terps’ nonconference slate ahead of a relentless Big Ten schedule. Nine of Maryland’s league matches are against programs that appeared in last season’s tournament, including Wisconsin, Ohio State and Purdue — all of which the Terps play twice.

As momentous as it would be, Hughes emphasized that his players shouldn’t be complacent with a long-awaited return to the NCAA tournament. For him, such an accomplishment would merely be a step toward becoming elite.

“I joke about how if we made the tournament, would we just be happy about that, or are we trying to win the next game?” he said. “I don’t want them to pursue just one destination.”