COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Just six short months ago head coach Steve Aird and a brand new coaching staff came to College Park charged with the task of leading the Maryland volleyball team into arguably the nation’s toughest conference: the Big Ten.
Aird quickly made his name known on campus and in the surrounding area, intent on not just leading the program into the Big Ten, but transforming the program into a national contender.
And while championships cannot be won overnight, it is clear Aird has put the Maryland volleyball team on a path to be successful both this season and far down the road.
As the Maryland volleyball team begins its new era this weekend in Elon, N.C., at the Phoenix Invitational, Aird is optimistic about the team’s progressive strides through training camp.
“The team is a lot farther ahead than I thought they’d be in a couple of weeks,” Aird said. “At this point going into our first match I feel pretty good about where we are. We have some veteran kids – some all-conference players – that have a good idea how to go about their business and I think we’re in a position where we’re going to be OK.”
The Terps open the season with four straight weekends on the road, including a trio of three-game tournaments, before making a daunting trip to Seattle, Wash., for the PAC-12/Big Ten showcase against No. 4 Washington and No. 5 USC.
“We were really fortunate to get into the PAC-12/Big Ten showcase – one of the premier tournaments in the country,” Aird said. “I’m excited to take this team to Seattle and expose them to a loud environment before we open up Big Ten play.”
An assistant coach for last season’s national title winners Penn State, Aird understands the quality of coaches, players, and environments Maryland will be up against this season. Featuring seven teams in the AVCA top-16 national poll, the Big Ten is set to send the nation’s best to College Park this season: No. 1 Penn State, No. 7 Nebraska, No. 8 Purdue, No. 12 Minnesota and No. 16 Michigan State.
“My goal and intent this first year is to be competitive and show fans that we are going to be a team that competes like crazy,” Aird said. “I want fans to enjoy the group and respect how hard we work and go about our business.”
Returning better than 80 percent of its blocking from a team that ranked 23rd nationally in block/s set, the Terps look to be strong through the middle defensively.
“I feel really good about bringing back some players who have a good feel for blocking and it’s an area I enjoy coaching,” Aird said. “I think we’re physical in certain positions that will give us some success and blocking is one of those areas.”
Leading the group is sophomore Ashlyn MacGregor, who ranked 28th nationally and third in the ACC with 1.33 blocks/s as a freshman. The Tarpon Springs, Fla., native will be joined inside by sophomore Chavi St. Hill (injured most of last season), junior Kelsey Hrebenach (1.08 blocks/s in 2013), senior Catie Coyle and freshman Hailey Murray.
With the potential to be Maryland’s strongest position, the Terps’ feature a trio of outside hitters in Adreene Elliott (Third Team All-ACC), Ashleigh Crutcher (Second Team All-ACC) and Emily Fraik, who have a combined eight seasons of collegiate volleyball experience.
“As long as they stay healthy, all three of them will carry the load offensively for us,” Aird said. “They each have the ability to compete in the Big Ten Conference and I think we are going to be OK.”
Elliott spent a portion of the summer in Minnesota training with the United State Collegiate National Team, and led the Terps in hitting percentage (.295) last season. She is Maryland’s “Ironwoman,” having played in 279 consecutive sets and 358 of a possible 361 during her career.
The Terps will also rely heavily on 2012 Honorable Mention All-American, who was third on the team with 304 kills (3.95/s) despite playing just 77 sets due to injury last season. If she can stay healthy, Crutcher and Elliott have the potential to be a highly formidable duo in the conference.
Sophomore Alex Brown has battled injury during training camp, but will provide depth when healthy.
A position that has largely been in flux over the last few years for various reasons, Maryland added sophomore transfer Carlotta Oggioni from Oregon State to stabilize the Terrapin offense. Born and raised in Rome, Italy, Oggioni came to Maryland for the chance to play in volleyball’s premier conference.
“Carlotta is veteran setter with strong experience in a big-time conference environment (PAC-12) and overseas growing up,” Aird said. “She wants to prove she can play at this level in the Big Ten and I see no reason why she can’t do so.”
The Terps also have a strong backup option in sophomore Whitney Craigo, who appeared in just 37 sets last season due to injury. Craigo averaged 4.59 assists/s as a freshman, including a career-high 31 assists at Syracuse.
Likely the Terrapins’ deepest position this season, Maryland features a number of options on the defensive end. Led by junior Amy Dion, who filled in at setter last season, the Terps have the tough task of replacing the program’s all-time leader in digs, Sarah Harper.
“is a girl that grew up in the Chicago area and I think it’s a pretty unique opportunity for her to play in the conference she looked up to growing up,” Aird said. “We’ve got some depth with some other players who will challenge them as the year goes on.”
Other than Dion and Bozzini, who combined for 207 sets as sophomores, the group is largely untested at the libero positon, but King and Higginbothem have performed well in preseason.