If Maryland volleyball's Gia Milana is playing off-blocker defense and a foe hits a ball to her right side, she'll leave her position and prepare for an attack.

The outside hitter does the same when a serve flies between her and libero Kelsey Wicinski because Milana knows the defensive specialist will be able to take care of the threat.

Wicinski leads the Big Ten with 120 digs and averages five digs per set. The junior has been a key cog of Maryland's defense, which has held six opponents to a .145 hitting percentage during its undefeated start.

At the Thunder Invite this weekend, the Terps' defense will once again rely on Wicinski's presence against Virginia Tech, Marshall and Toledo.

"[Wicinski] is elite," coach Steve Aird said. "She has one of the best natural touches that I've been around. She's one of the best passers that I've ever coached, and there's been some good ones. And I think she's grown up … She got a lot of time last year and learned a lot of lessons."

The Geneva, Illinois, native uses her experience to assist others on the floor. Playing in the back row, Wicinski has a clearer view of how players should set up to defend. She adjusts her teammates' position — based on what type of serve she expects — shifts the team to counter an opponents' attacking trends and communicates ball responsibilities.

Aird said that while about eight players on the team can pass at a good level, Wicinski's ability to receive serves separates herself.

Wicinski tries to teach the fundamentals of receiving to the underclassmen-heavy roster in practice. She stresses maintaining eye contact with the ball and steading players' while maintaining good foot placement.

During a match, Wicinski communicates assignments to each player one-on-one to calm the pace of the game.

"A lot of it is just me taking more balls, just because I do have the skills in order to do so," Wicinski said. "If I go hard for a ball, everyone else is more likely to go hard for a ball. It's just to set the standard."

While Wicinski controls the backcourt for Maryland, she relies on front court blockers and good serves to make her job easier. With a more physical front unit this season, Wicinski has benefited from playing around the blockers and limiting floorspace for opposition attackers.

"She always knows what's going on," middle blocker Katie Myers said. "Being in the backcourt you can see and talk to the front row hitters what route the other hitters are running. She's always there and we trust her behind us."

Aird said the team features multiple players who are capable of serving runs. Outside hitter Erika Pritchard displayed her prowess by piecing five aces together during a 10-point run for the Terps in the decisive fourth set against Elon last weekend. But Wicinski takes the lead.

"When the block has a really good setup, it's really easy for me to read around it," Wicinski said. "Consistently, we've been doing good serves, [keeping] them in. We're just working well as a team."