Despite the Maryland volleyball team's development under coach Steve Aird, a gap remains between the Terps and the Big Ten's top programs.
As back-to-back ranked recruiting classes help Maryland shrink that talent disparity, the Terps are still learning to win on the road. In three full seasons of conference play, they have earned just four road victories. Last year, the Terps won just six sets during 10 road fixtures.
"My freshman year, we really were not able to win on the road at all, and all the really good top teams in the Big Ten can do that," libero Kelsey Wicinski said. "Being able to go on the road and put a good performance together is a big step."
Wicinski, a junior, said the mentality during her first season with the Terps was "let's just hang in there" when traveling. That year, the Terps picked up wins over Iowa and Northwestern, marking the squad's most-ever road wins in a Big Ten season.
When the Geneva, Illinois, native returns to her home state this weekend to face Illinois, she won't just look forward to catching up with the friends and family she expects to see in the crowd. With a win over Indiana already secured this year, Maryland (13-5) can add to its Big Ten total against Northwestern (12-6) and the Illini (13-4) on Friday and Saturday.
Wicinski said Tuesday the team's road mindset has become more confident, and she thinks it's ready to take at least a couple of sets.
Still, overarching difficulties remain. Each gym is different, and it takes time getting used to how the ball floats in a new environment. Plus, opposing fans on the road can create a hostile setting.
"The conference being so good, you're playing really, really good teams back-to-back nights," Aird said. "It's hard on your body, it's hard for preparation because you have a very limited amount of time to get ready for the next team. … If you play poorly on the road, you're going to get beat up."
The Terps rank higher than the Wildcats in RPI, but the Illini are receiving votes in the AVCA Coaches' Poll after their 4-2 conference start. Illinois also draws the seventh-most fans in the country, averaging 3,311 supporters.
With Northwestern's Welsh-Ryan Arena under construction, Maryland will play Friday's contest in DePaul University's McGrath-Phillips Arena in Chicago.
Wicinski recommends freshmen use the morning session of serve and pass in opposition's arenas to get a feel for their surroundings.
Defensive specialist Samantha Burgio isn't fazed as much as other freshmen might be, she said, because of the pressure her high school coaches put her under. She's learned to play through adversity.
After Maryland's next homestand, the Terps will face four top-15 teams in four straight road matches. No. 4 Nebraska leads the nation in average attendance, with 8,175 fans per game. No. 2 Penn State averages the sixth most in the country.
Eight Big Ten schools rank in the top-20 for average attendance, something that adds to the challenge of Maryland's talent disparity with top conference opponents.
"It's not one of these things where you just assume you're going to show up and win," Aird said. "It's kind of the opposite."