Maryland volleyball has emphasized earning its points in close sets instead of relying on its opponents to make the crucial mistakes. The Terps thoroughly followed that philosophy against Florida Atlantic and Florida Gulf Coast on Saturday.
Maryland seized control of two critical sets to sweep the Owls before it fended off a furious rally by an Eagles team that represented a significant test for a Terps squad looking to push itself against elite nonconference foes.
After watching its two-set lead over Florida Gulf Coast evaporate, Maryland rediscovered the poise that’s carried the team throughout its stirring nonconference slate and emerged from Alico Arena with a gritty 3-2 win over the Eagles in the final match of the Hilton Garden Inn FGCU Classic in Fort Myers, Florida.
The Terps burst ahead 11-7 in the fifth frame before Florida Gulf Coast rallied to within a point on two occasions to cut Maryland’s advantage to 12-11. An Eagles misfire and a timely block by newly-inserted Samantha Schnitta put the Terps on the brink of victory, one Maryland captured two points later on Anastasia Russ’ match-sealing spike to clinch the fifth set 15-12.
“We’re gassed physically, but we keep fighting every point and giving it our all,” outside hitter Sam Csire said. “We’re telling people in the back row, ‘Don’t let anything drop,’ we’re telling our hitters, ‘Go swing away, we got you covered.’”
Maryland finished the preseason 10-2 and enters Big Ten play winners of six straight.
Saturday night’s first frame against the Eagles, who made the NCAA tournament in 2022, revealed just how much the Terps have grown since they were throttled by Miami in the opening set of their match on Aug. 25, Maryland’s first this season against a tournament team.
The Terps kept pace with Florida Gulf Coast until an official’s review overturned a Laila Ricks error to a kill, a key decision that flipped a 16-15 advantage over to Maryland. It was just the edge the Terps needed. Maryland laid off a quartet of Eagles errors and used consecutive kills by Laila Ivey to pull away and win the opening set by five.
As the second stanza meandered into another back-and-forth affair, the Terps’ blossoming confidence made their ensuing surge appear routine. The initial spurt came courtesy of Russ, who spearheaded a three-point run with a kill and two blocks to slide Maryland ahead 13-12. Alexandra Zakutney knotted the set at 13, but her spike was washed away amid an eight-point tidal wave the Terps rode to coast into the third set with a commanding 2-0 lead before Florida Gulf Coast came to life.
Csire’s 1,000th career kill to open the frame did little to discourage the Eagles, who ripped 16 kills around one error to overwhelm Maryland 25-15. The roars from the re-energized home crowd grew increasingly loud with each of Florida Gulf Coast’s three service aces throughout its own eight-point run that submerged the Terps in a 12-6 deficit.
“I think they made the choice to kind of let it run there a little bit, just get to the third [set],” coach Adam Hughes said. “And, you know, good teams are gonna respond … Kudos to them.”
Ivey and Russ steadied Maryland with two kills apiece during a countersurge that drew the Terps even at 16-16, but Maryland failed to summon one final push. Four straight errors gifted the Eagles an already generous cushion before Skylar English laced three straight aces to punctuate a 9-1 run that tugged the Terps along for the decisive set.
“Wild, up-and-down match, man,” Hughes said, “but good teams find ways to win.”
Unlike in the nightcap, Maryland seized every opportunity to close out sets in its 3-0 win over Florida Atlantic earlier Saturday.
The Terps led 15-12 in the third frame before the Owls’ defense flipped Florida Atlantic’s three-point deficit into a three-point lead, which forced Hughes to call timeout down 21-18. After both sides traded a kill, Sydney Dowler and Ellie Watson pulled Maryland even at 22-22 before the duo accounted for three straight blocks to cap a furious six-point run that locked up the Terps’ fourth-straight sweep.
“It was really hype,” outside hitter Ivey said after Game 1. “Nothing compares to just blocking someone [three] times in a row. …It was just pure excitement from us.”
Saturday’s first set hinged on efficiency as both sides traded kills until the Owls (8-5) clawed ahead 16-15 on Katelyn Robine’s ace. Then, Florida Atlantic blinked – the Owls committed four errors over a six-point span, which Maryland capitalized on by belting five late kills to jet ahead 1-0.
The Terps’ consistency seeped into the subsequent set as Maryland slugged 10 more spikes before it committed an error. Ivey zipped five spikes past the Owls throughout a set the Terps never trailed in en route to a 25-17 triumph.
“When we’re all in flow, it’s kind of easy for me to get in flow,” said Ivey, who finished with a team-high 11 kills in the first win of the day.
Ivey kept dealing in the third frame until Florida Atlantic’s front row stiffened throughout a 7-2 run that vaulted the Owls ahead by three. But in what became the common theme throughout the day, Maryland peaked when it mattered most.