As Maryland volleyball associate head coach Adam Hughes and student managers warmed up the team before facing Northwestern on Friday, senior middle blocker Hailey Murray stood apart from the setters and defensive specialists working on their first passes.
Murray stared through the net at the Wildcats going through the same warm up regimen prior to her final regular season match for the Terps. Coach Steve Aird met Murray — one of two players who has been with him in each of his four seasons in College Park — and shared a laugh. Murray has never missed a contest since joining the program.
But while Murray and defensive specialist Samantha Higginbothem played key roles, Maryland's star-studded underclassmen came through with clean attacking efforts to beat Northwestern in straight sets (25-23, 25-22, 25-13).
"The two things those kids did was, they believed in my vision and they worked hard every single day," Aird said. "They were tireless, they were great teammates, great human beings, and I told them … they're going to be leaving at a time when the program's going to be right at the start of being excellent, but they'll be proud because they're the ones who helped build it."
Aird felt his side was outworked in a four-set loss to Ohio State on Wednesday that increased the pressure of its final regular season contest. Two wins in Maryland's final week would have virtually assured a tournament berth for the first time since 2005.
Instead, the Terps entered Friday knowing another win would be crucial to add to their NCAA tournament resume. Outside hitters Erika Pritchard and Gia Milana ensured the victory with 15 and 11 kills, respectively, but they'll have to wait until Sunday's selection show to know whether they'll reach the postseason.
"Obviously, the committee's human, but if I were making our case, we're 18-14, our RPIs going to be really good, we don't have any losses in the country to a [bad] team — I think our worst loss is Ohio State," Aird said. "In a year where the bubble's kind of soft, I thought we did what we had to do."
Milana and Pritchard finished the first frame with five kills each and no errors. Pritchard notched the final kill of the frame and celebrated at center court with a group of players all expected to return next year.
It displayed the transition period Maryland's undergoing. When Murray and Higginbothem entered the program in Aird's first season, neither were nationally recognized recruits. In their senior seasons, they lead 12 underclassmen, the majority of whom were peppered with superlatives prior to college.
Maryland established an edge with four aces in the first frame, but couldn't continue the trend into the second set. The Terps took some of the edge off jump serves, more confident in their ability to return attacking efforts from the Wildcats than they were against Ohio State, a match in which they accumulated 14 service errors. Murray supplied two aces Friday.
Milana reverted to a more conservative standing short serve rather than the jump serve she has employed for the last two months of the season. Milana hit 20 service errors with just one ace during her last six matches but limited her miscues against Northwestern by using a more conservative serving technique.
Despite a 10-5 deficit that forced Aird into an early timeout in set two, a 7-1 run from the Terps tied the set at 18 before they completed the comeback with a 25-22 set win.
Maryland rolled to a 25-13 third-set win on the back of its underclassmen. When Milana notched her 10th kill from the back row, establishing a 12-7 lead and forcing a Northwestern timeout, Aird stood and pumped both fists. The Terps' top four attackers Friday were underclassmen.
Pritchard capped the match with a solo block, and Murray, who helped teach the freshman blocking techniques, jumped, knees to chest, three times before hugging the group on the court.
"That's all [Murray] wants, is to make the people around us happy and show that we're doing something amazing with the program," Milana said. "That last point, she saw all the hard work she's put in, all the early mornings, late nights, and I can't even imagine what she feels after that. Especially being in the situation we are, with the growing program."