No one knew what to expect from the Maryland volleyball team in 2005.
But when the Terrapins were picked to finish seventh in the Atlantic Coast Conference and they didn't receive any votes in the CSTV/AVCA preseason poll, one thing became clear -- no one expected much from the Terps.
Maybe it was because Maryland lost four starters and five seniors to graduation. Perhaps it was because the Terps would rely on two freshmen in the starting lineup. It could have been the lack of an experienced setter.
None of the reasons matter now because Maryland is 12-0 and starting to receive some national attention.
"I don't think you ever expect that," head coach Janice Kruger said of her team's perfect start. "You hope for it, you try for it. But I didn't know how they would respond early on. People didn't know what to do with us because we have two new setters and we have some young players who [have played] key roles."
While many coaches stay awake at night worrying about breaking in a new setter, Kruger challenged her team by implementing a 6-2 offense that would feature a pair of new setters. Junior Teryn Papp had only 31 assists while backing up Aimee Huddleston, and her counterpart would be freshman Tedi Doucet.
One of the reasons Kruger changed offensive philosophies was because neither setter had the size to put up an effective block. The other reason was to take advantage of the strength of her team, a dominating front row.
"I haven't done this in years," Kruger said. "This is the first time in 18 years at Maryland that I've run a 6-2 offense. It was a matter of personnel. We have some tall kids for a front line, blocking and hitting, and our setters were a little on the small side, so it worked out perfectly. Getting the ball to our two middles will be the key."
Seniors Rachel Wagener and Stephanie Smith give the Terrapins one of the strongest tandems of middle blockers in the conference, if not the country. Wagener began the season as Maryland's career leader in block assists and total blocks, and she leads the team with 142 kills and a .426 hitting percentage. Smith leads the team with 69 total blocks, is hitting .371 and has put down 109 kills.
"I really like the 6-2 offense because it gives us the ability to have three hitters up all the time," Wagener said. "Both middles have good connections with both setters. It's something a little different for the other schools to defend."
Another reason the Terrapin offense is difficult to defend is the balance it has achieved during the first 12 matches. Maryland is hitting .284 as a team and has five players with more than 100 kills. Sophomore outside hitters Beth Gillming and Jade Brown have been consistent, racking up 120 and 115 kills, respectively, while freshman outside hitter Maggie Schmelzle has contributed on both sides of the net with 111 kills and 129 digs.
"I think our younger girls are stepping up really big," Wagener said. "I'm really proud of the freshmen -- Maggie and Tedi -- they are doing very well. Everybody has confidence in each other, and as long as we keep playing the way we can, I think we can go far."
What Wagener means by going far is finishing high enough in the ACC standings to earn another berth in the NCAA Tournament. Last year, the Terps were at their best in the postseason when they won the conference championship and took Penn State to the limit in a match played in State College, Pa.
"As a team, we want to win the ACC or at least finish in the top three," Wagener said. "We definitely want to go to the NCAA Tournament and get past the second round, where we have been stuck the last two years. It would be cool if we could play Penn State again. It was an intense match, so close in every game."
But before the Terps can think about the NCAA Tournament, they need to focus on winning the conference. With its expansion to 12 teams, the ACC champion will be decided during the regular season instead of a conference tournament, where Maryland had won back-to-back titles the last two years.
"The tournament has been good to us the last couple of years because we hadn't necessarily gone in as a favorite," Kruger said. "I like the fact that now you get everyone home and away. I think the results will be very clear."
The Terrapins are off to a good start with conference victories over Boston College, Florida State and Miami, but this weekend they will go on the road for the first time in conference play with matches at Virginia Tech and Virginia. Then it's on to Georgia Tech and Clemson. Regardless of where they play, the Terps are looking at every match as if their title is on the line."
"We're going into every conference match with the mentality that it is for the ACC championship," Wagener said. ""We're ready for anybody."
Team of the Week
California had one of the best weekends in the program's history when the Golden Bears defeated both UCLA and USC. On Friday night, Cal upset the 13th-ranked Bruins 30-26, 30-24, 30-28 for its first-ever victory over UCLA in 48 matches. The following night, the Bears pulled out a 28-30, 33-31, 30-19, 25-30, 15-12 victory over the Trojans, marking the first time Cal defeated both opponents on the same weekend. Sophomore outside hitter Angie Pressey was named the Pac-10 volleyball Player of the Week after putting down team highs of 19 kills against UCLA and 21 vs. the Trojans. She also recorded two service aces, 21 digs and four blocks in the two matches. The Golden Bears have started with a 2-0 conference record for the third consecutive year, and eight of their nine victories have come via three-game sweeps. Cal will go on the road this Thursday and Friday for matches at Oregon and Oregon State, respectively.
One of the top rivalries in college volleyball will be renewed Friday when No. 19 USC makes the crosstown trip to No. 17 UCLA. The programs have combined for 10 of 19 Pac-10 championships and six of 24 NCAA national championships. The Bruins still lead the series 21-17, including a 10-9 edge in matches played at Pauley Pavilion, but the Trojans have won the last eight matches. UCLA will enter the match with a 7-4 overall record but has lost three consecutive matches to ranked opponents. Both teams will be looking to rebound from last weekend's trip to the Bay area. UCLA began conference play with losses at No. 3 Stanford and then-No. 25 California. USC will enter the match with a 4-6 overall record, but all six of its losses have been to teams ranked no lower than 14th in this week's CSTV/AVCA poll. Friday's match will also be the first contest in the 2005-06 Lexus Gauntlet, a yearlong competition between the two rivals where 110 points are distributed over 18 sports. The Bruins won last year's award, which was first presented following the 2001-02 athletic year.
Fran Kalafer won her 600th career match when Hofstra defeated Virginia Commonwealth in three games 30-26, 30-21, 30-25 on Friday. Kalafer became just the 12th active NCAA Division I head coach to reach the milestone. Kalafer, a 1973 graduate of SUNY-Cortland, owns an overall record of 600-340, which includes a three-year stint at Stony Brook University. She took control of the Hofstra program in 1981 and has posted a 578-313 record with the Pride. UNC Asheville's Julie Torbett earned career victory No. 200 when the Bulldogs beat Lipscomb, and James Madison's Disa Garner became the school's leader with 91 Division I victories.
Idaho senior middle blocker/outside hitter Meghan Brown became the school's career leader in digs in a victory over Fresno State, finishing the match with nine for a total of 1,188 Western Illinois junior libero Jennifer Alexander had 32 digs against Valparaiso and became the school's all-time leader with 1,438 Ball State senior outside hitter Sarah Obras became the first player in Mid-American Conference history to record 1,700 kills and 1,400 digs when she had 22 digs against Bowling Green Senior outside hitter Mary Hock set a school record with eight service aces and Winthrop set a program record with 20 in a victory over Grambling Redshirt freshman Jessie Nevitt set a Cincinnati single-match record with 13 total blocks against Marshall Stanford junior outside hitter Kristin Richards became the seventh player in the program's history to amass 1,000 career kills and digs when she posted 12 digs in a three-game win over UCLA Sophomore setter Brigitte Slack became the fifth Alabama player to reach the 2,000-assist plateau Florida senior libero Rachel Engel became the seventh Gator to reach the 1,000-dig mark Senior setter Julie Knytych posted career dig No. 1,000 when Tennessee beat Arkansas LSU senior middle blocker Ivana Kuzmic notched her 1,000th kill against South Carolina Bradley senior middle blocker Lindsay Stalzer set a Missouri Valley Conference single-match record with 94 attacks against Evansville and became the 19th player in MVC history to reach the 1,500 mark for career kills.
Dave Reed has covered college volleyball for national publications since 1996.