Rutgers makes history, grabs elusive first Big Ten win
The ball smacked the floor after a Maryland attack error and just like that, it was all over.
The Barn exploded with cheers as the Rutgers volleyball team earned its first Big Ten Conference win in program history.
Even more miraculous than the end of a 28 conference match losing streak was the way that the fifth and final set was won by the Scarlet Knights (4-14, 1-8).
Miscommunication in the front row for Rutgers dug the team in an early hole, down 8-3 in the fifth and final set after Maryland dominated the fourth.
Then the unthinkable happened. Led by the serves of senior outside hitter Alex Lassa, the team was able to find itself and mount a comeback.
“It took all of us to do that,” senior defensive specialist Ali Schroeter said of the team's rally in the fifth set. “Especially in that fifth game where it’s only (played) to 15, you’ve got to really figure it out soon.”
The final set is always a brief one in college volleyball, played to 15 points instead of the regular 25, stacking the odds heavily in the favor of the Maryland Terrapins (10-13, 0-9). But nevertheless, the game slipped out of the hands of the Terps and turned into what may be the defining moment in Rutgers volleyball history.
The players acted accordingly, mobbing the six players who finished the game and headed to the home locker room of the College Avenue Gymnasium where an emotional scene ensued.
“Even before the locker room, on the way down, people were starting to cry, everyone was so excited," said outside hitter Meme Fletcher. "I’ve never seen emotion like that out of some people and even myself. I started balling — it just hit me."
Fletcher, despite being a sophomore, is one of the key playmakers on the team, leading the team in scoring despite losing a portion of the season to injury. In the biggest game of the season, the Overland Park, Kansas, native was as advertised, pacing the Knights with 25 kills.
Although having a heavy hitter on the outside is always a huge weapon for a team, Rutgers often struggles when Fletcher tries to do it all on her own.
In the performance against Maryland, she was joined by a team of dangerous hitters on the front row of the court.
Headlining the group of heavy hitters that helped lead the Knights to their first Big Ten victory was junior Mikaela Matthews, who returned to her starting spot at the middle blocker position after being sidelined for most of the season with an undisclosed injury.
Matthews registered seven kills in her return to the court and her presence in the middle allowed junior Lauren Cloyd to return to her natural position of right side. Cloyd pitched in with eight kills of her own.
“She opens up a lot of things,” head coach CJ Werneke said of Matthews. “Giving us a lot more swings out of the middle (and) helping Lauren Cloyd getting back to her more natural position (were advantages she provided us).”
Despite the obvious lift that Matthews gave Rutgers, Werneke remained contained about the return of the Mt. Carmel High School product, still uneasy about whether she could maintain her level of play after being away from the game for so long.
The Knights continue to build energy late in the season. After their strong showing against No. 23 Michigan last week, the team seemed to have turned a page.
Now the team heads to the Terrapins home court for a showdown in College Park on Saturday night to continue a Big Ten campaign that has been dreary for the most part.
Although the season has not been the one they had hoped for, Rutgers is now on a mission to push Maryland to the bottom spot of the Big Ten standing that it once occupied.
Fletcher cited the close game with Michigan as a major turning point for the Knights.
“I think the Michigan gave us some confidence," Fletcher said. "(We) used the Michigan game as motivation to come out and show who we really are in this match and take advantage of that."
Rutgers' on-court leader expressed true feelings of the resilience of her team.
“Even if we're down, it doesn’t mean we can’t come back — and that’s exactly what we did tonight," she said.
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