Things could have turned out a lot worse.
Former Maryland head coach Steve Aird’s announcement just a couple days after Christmas of last year that he had accepted the head coaching job at Indiana rocked the Terrapin women’s volleyball program. A number of players immediately began looking to transfer, and four committed to new programs within a month of Aird’s departure. A fifth would follow later in the spring.
The Maryland athletic department immediately launched a nationwide search for a new head coach, but the players who remained in College Park already knew who they wanted: associate head coach Adam Hughes. Ultimately, the university agreed with the players that Hughes and assistant Kristin Steadman should stay, and the official hire was announced January 23, 2018.
“The players reached out to the administration to try to keep our staff in order, not just me but they wanted the whole group to stay in,” Hughes said. “They had our backs and we had their backs. We were committed to them going through the job process, hoping to get the gig. I think we felt a lot of trust in each other.”
That trust has proven to be hugely valuable in the first year of Hughes era.
In 2017, Maryland went 18-14, the program’s best record since 2010, and collected a program best seven wins in the Big Ten. The Terps came within inches of making the NCAA postseason and were identified by the selection committee as the last team out of the tournament. But with the coaching shakeup and the mass exodus by some of the team’s top players, few people outside of College Park had high hopes for Maryland heading into 2018.
The Big Ten coaches picked the Terps second-to-last in the preseason poll, but Maryland was too busy integrating its new players and determine its new identity to pay too much attention.
With his new position secured, Hughes set about rebuilding his team. He brought in transfer setter Nicole Alford from Georgia Tech and outside hitters Hailey Rubino from New Mexico and Emma Schriner, a true freshman who graduated from high school early and spent the spring semester at Tennessee. He also added freshman Allegra Rivas to the Terps’ 2018 recruiting class that already included middle blocker Rainelle Jones.
Throughout the entire process, Hughes felt strongly that his players, who had fought so hard for him, should be included in deciding who joined their team.
“We brought in a number of transfer players and a few of them I think could have probably helped us, but our players thought it wasn’t the right fit for the culture that they had built,” Hughes said. “We took their word for it and we moved on accordingly, so the people that have been brought in have been chosen not just by me but by the entire program.”
In preseason, the Terps went 9-3, with all three of their losses coming in five-set matches. As conference play got rolling, Maryland quietly began collecting valuable victories, first, over Rutgers, then Ohio State, then Rutgers again, then two big wins in back-to-back weekends: a sweep of Aird’s Indiana team in Bloomington and and a straight-set victory at home over Iowa.
Heading into the final month of the regular season, Maryland has five conference wins and Hughes is optimistic about his team’s ability to match, or improve upon, 2017’s seven Big Ten victories.
“They’re starting to realize that they have what they need, and they just have to keep getting better,” Hughes said. “They know that they’re a pretty young team, but they aren’t using that as an excuse anymore.”
Hughes gives a lot of credit to his captains Liz Twilley and Katie Myers for guiding the team through the coaching transition and the season to date.
“[Liz] started for two full seasons for us, and then last year, her role kind of changed, she didn’t see the court very much, but she is someone if you ask the players, she always does things the right way,” Hughes said. “She’s a really good model for the younger players of how to take care of yourself both on and off the court.”
Twilley has even worked her way back in the lineup for the Terps, and the senior outside hitter ranks second on the team with 220 kills.
Middle blocker Myers joined the team in 2016, but suffered season-ending injuries in back-to-back years and was granted a medical redshirt both times, so she’s technically still a redshirt freshman.
“[Katie’s] gone through two years of rehab to get herself back, and she’s a captain for a reason,” Hughes said. “I think the players really respect how she goes about her business.”
Myers ranks third on the team with 152 kills and first with 91 blocks. She also leads the Big Ten in aces per set, thanks to a solid, heavy serve. Hughes says she’s someone who wants the ball in crunchtime and is not afraid to go for the high-risk, high-reward serve or the heavy swing.
Off the court, Myers has helped injured players -- like sophomore Jada Gardner, who is currently out of the lineup due to an ankle injury -- come to terms with their predicament and learn a new role on the team.
With 2017’s top hitter Gia Milana now playing for Baylor, sophomore Erika Pritchard has grown into Maryland’s go-to player on the court, and she leads the team with 366 kills and ranks second in the conference with 4.26 kills per set.
“[Erika has] started to embrace that role and understand that she doesn’t have to be perfect, but she can really make a big impact in the match,” Hughes said. “She’s gotten better at letting the game come to her, and she’s starting to see the court a lot better and not always hitting the same shots or predetermining what she wants to do. She’s someone that we’re excited about. I think she’s just scratching the surface of what she could become.”
On Friday, Maryland takes on Northwestern, which has won three of its last four matches after going winless in its first eight conference outings of the season.
“Northwestern is a pretty hot team right now,” Hughes said. “They are starting to get back to full health, I know they are a little bit banged up at setter right now, but they are one of the younger teams in the conference and they kind of remind us of ourselves in a lot of ways.
“You look at some of the stats and I think we’re pretty even across the board. So there are different styles in play but I think we’re expecting that this will be a really competitive match.”
One of the pieces of feedback the Maryland players gave Hughes as they prepared to head into the 2018 season was that they wanted every match to be treated the same, no matter the opponent. So perhaps neither Hughes or his team would admit to seeing it this way, but as an outsider, this Northwestern match is incredibly important as it is one of just three matches against a team not currently ranked in the top 15 nationally left in Maryland’s season.
Assuming the Terps can’t pull off a massive upset in its other remaining matches versus No. 4 Illinois, No. 14 Michigan, No. 3 Minnesota, No. 5 Wisconsin, or No. 8 Nebraska, it will need to win all three upcoming meetings over unranked opponents to improve upon last year’s seven Big Ten wins.
After hosting Northwestern on Friday, Maryland welcomes Illinois to College Park Sunday, just over a week after the two teams’ first meeting of the season in which Illinois earned the sweep.
“Illinois at Illinois was really tough, and they just beat Nebraska at Nebraska,” Hughes said of his team’s second opponent of the week. “It’s a group that had a No. 1 recruiting class in the country, they are all seniors now. They were a young team for a number of years and just continued to play together, and we look at that maybe as a model moving forward. How much can you develop? How much can you add?”
In the previous meeting with Illinois, the home team kept the Terps under 20 points in each of the three sets and held Maryland to a .055 hitting percentage, the Terps’ second-lowest offensive performance of the season.
“We’ll have to be much better [against Illinois,]” Hughes said. “I didn't think we did a very good job serving and I thought we were out-of-system a lot. For a team that is a little bit undersized, that is going to be a tough matchup if we can’t handle the first touch.”
Follow Maryland’s journey as Hughes and his team look to prove themselves against Northwestern and Illinois this weekend. Both matches will stream live, right here on FloVolleyball.