When Maryland volleyball players were asked about their preparation for the start of the 2017 campaign, they referred to a simple drill: "Prepare to block." In the exercise, a defender patiently watches where a set is played before exploding forward to meet an attacker above the net.
The training routine, led by coach Steve Aird and associate head coach Adam Hughes, has helped the Terps maintain strong net play in recent seasons. They hope it will lead to success in the season-opening Maryland Invite this weekend.
Maryland has used "Prepare to block" to get ready for upcoming tournament matches against UMBC, Northeastern and Temple. Without a clear idea of what it will see from opponents at the start of the year, the straightforward practice allows the squad to anticipate different offensive styles.
"Prepare to block is a really good drill for us, just to learn different systems and to prepare against different types of offenses," senior middle blocker Hailey Murray said. "That's going to be really important going into game weeks because we'll have people kind of pretend to be the other team."
Maryland's blocking game will be essential entering a tournament featuring Northeastern, which went 20-11 last season, and Temple, which went 22-8 last season.
The level of early season competition represents a shift from the 2016 Maryland Invite, when the Terps stormed through Eastern Michigan, Delaware State and Sacred Heart without dropping a set.
"We're the underdog in two out of the three matches," Aird said. "Temple and Northeastern finished much higher than we did last year. The hardest thing about the first match of the year is that you don't know anything about the team. You go in blind."
Aird said the blocking system he runs is simple and is designed to be repeatable. It starts with a strong serve to make digs and sets difficult for opponents. Then, he tells his front-line players to avoid letting a clean kill land. He preaches to at least tip the effort, if not block it.
"It's definitely a momentum shifter," middle blocker Katie Myers said. "If the opposing team goes on a run, and then you just deny someone, you're like, 'Okay, next. Our ball.' A little bit of spice with it."
Former middle blocker Ashlyn MacGregor graduated last year after finishing her career third all-time at Maryland with 516 total blocks.
The Terps hope others can fill the void.
Myers missed her freshman season due to a knee injury, but Aird predicts she can be one of the premier middle blockers in the conference this season. The Terps also added freshman middle blocker Jada Gardner, who provides bench depth.
Plus, Maryland returns Murray and outside hitter Angel Gaskin, who finished second on the team last year with 114 blocks.
"Ashlyn was a very special player," outside hitter Gia Milana said. "But I do think … we also gained some real talent and good human beings. I think that we won't be hurting."
Saturday during Maryland's preseason Red-White scrimmage, Gardner combined with Murray twice in the second set for blocks. Both times the pairing waited for the set before committing to the right side of the net to stuff the attacker.
Even in an intrasquad competition, Gardner showed emotion, letting out a yell before meeting her team in a quick huddle. It was similar to the intensity shown during the team's "Prepare to block" drill, when the first to five points wins.
"[Blocking] is something we've always been good at training," Aird said. "It was one of my main responsibilities at Penn State when we were doing some pretty good stuff. … I think now, specifically, we have such a physical young team we're going to get better at it."