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‘We’re an upset school’: UMBC volleyball seeking to pull off NCAA tournament shocker against Pepperdine

The UMBC volleyball team celebrates winning the America East Conference title with a five-set victory over Albany.
The UMBC volleyball team celebrates winning the America East Conference title with a five-set victory over Albany. (Courtesy of America East Conference)

The UMBC volleyball team did not have to search vigorously to find some motivation before meeting Albany in the America East Conference title game that would send the winner to the NCAA tournament. All the Retrievers had to do was remember a two-match sweep by the Great Danes in early March, especially a five-set thriller in the finale.

“That just created this fire,” sophomore rightside hitter Emily Ferketic said Monday. “We already had a fire, but it was a new fire because we were so close, and we wanted it so bad. We knew that two points was not much. That’s one or two balls or one or two calls. So we knew that we had it in us to take them.”

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Coach Cristina Robertson had a simpler explanation.

“I think we were pissed,” she said with a laugh. “They knew their personnel so well and just losing to one team two times, they were like, ‘OK, the third time is not going to happen.’ We literally practiced day in and day out, and they watched film on their own, and they came in for extra reps. They really wanted to beat this team.”

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That emotion served UMBC well as the team upset Albany, the 2017 and 2019 regular-season titlist and the 2019 tournament champion, in five sets April 2 for the program’s first America East crown of any kind. The victory set the stage for the Retrievers (11-3) to take part in their first NCAA tournament since 1998, when they clash with No. 20 Pepperdine (16-3) on Wednesday at 12 p.m. in Omaha, Nebraska.

UMBC is not the only area program participating in the postseason. Towson (6-0), which captured its second Colonial Athletic Association title in a row, will tangle with Dayton (13-1) on Wednesday at 3:30 p.m.

The winner of the Retrievers-Waves match will advance to the second round to face No. 12 seed Baylor (19-6). Emily Ehman, a volleyball analyst for the Big Ten Network, said that scenario could aid UMBC.

“Pepperdine had a really good season. They lost only three matches, I believe, to BYU, San Diego and Baylor,” said Ehman, who was a defensive specialist at Northwestern from 2016 to 2019. “I will say that I think it helps UMBC’s chances that the second matchup would be against Baylor because Pepperdine could be looking ahead a little bit to avenge that loss. That could potentially give UMBC an opportunity to slide in and hit them with the upset.”

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The Retrievers’ road to Omaha was foreseen by few. The 2019 squad finished second-to-last in the America East and was voted to finish fifth among seven in the conference’s preseason poll.

The lack of regard might be traced to UMBC’s youth. Five of the team’s 11 members are freshmen, and three are sophomores. While defensive specialist Loren Teter is a graduate student, this is her first time with the program after transferring from San Diego State.

Teter, who led the Aztecs in digs per set in 2018 and 2019, said she was unaware of the Retrievers when Robertson reached out to her shortly after she entered the transfer portal in December 2019. But she said she chose UMBC over Southern California because she was attracted by the opportunity to mentor a young roster.

“I could tell that Cristina and I were on the same page about, ‘Hey, we can have a lot of success. We just need to find the right pieces and put it together,’” said Teter, who at 22 is the veteran of the group. “The most I can do to help this team is maybe lead them in that direction and be able to help them grow. I know that when I was a freshman, there were always those seniors that could take the reins and kind of show you the way. So I was happy to fill that role.”

Robertson said Teter, who ranks second in the America East in total digs (231) and fourth in digs per set (4.3), has been an anchor.

“You can tell that she’s a rock for us on the court,” said Robertson, who was named Tuesday as the East Coast Region Coach of the Year by the American Volleyball Coaches Association’s All-Region Committee. “She keeps everyone motivated and calm and definitely steps it up in moments when the freshmen might [panic] a little bit.”

Several players and Robertson point to a Feb. 27 match at Stony Brook as the turning point of the season. After losing the first two sets and facing match point at 24-23, the Retrievers won the next three points to take the set and won the fourth and fifth sets for the match.

“We wanted it,” Ferketic recalled. “We came together as a team. As soon as we turned that game around, that’s when I knew. I knew this team was going someplace.”

UMBC has benefited from several key individual performances this season.

Senior rightside hitter Anouk Van Noord of The Netherlands earned a spot on the All-America East first team after leading the league in total kills (178) and ranking third in total points (192.5) and kills per set (3.7).

Freshman outside hitter Darina Kumanova of Bulgaria joined Van Noord on the first team and was named the Rookie of the Year after finishing second in total kills (175) and total points (195.5) per set and sixth in total digs (165).

And freshman Aysia Miller, who was initially recruited from Hawaii as a rightside hitter and defensive specialist, was voted Setter of the Year for leading the conference in total assists (583) and ranking second in assists per set (10.8).

Besides Van Noord and Kumanova, there are three more international players in freshman middle blocker Michela De Marzi of Italy, freshman middle blocker Beste Ayhan of Turkey, and freshman outside hitter Weronika Wrzesinska of Poland, and Kumanova credited Robertson and assistant coaches Ronaldo Pacheco and Terrence Robertson (Cristina’s husband) with nurturing their growth.

“They’re like our parents, especially for all of the internationals,” she said. “They’re always helping us, and we really feel like we’re at home with our family. We consider them our family, like our mom and dad.”

Still, the Retrievers face perhaps their most challenging opponent in Pepperdine, which starts only one senior, outside hitter Shannon Scully, who nonetheless earned West Coast Conference first-team honors. Junior Madison Shields was named the league’s Libero of the Year for the second consecutive season, and freshman middle blocker Meg Brown was voted Freshman of the Year. Junior outside hitter Rachel Ahrens and sophomore setter Isabel Zelaya joined Scully and Brown on the conference’s first team.

Ehman, the Big Ten Network analyst, said the first-round match pits two teams from opposite ends of the experience spectrum.

“The tournament is typically when you lean on your veterans and the people that have been there, and you have a team like Pepperdine that has been there,” she said. “They know how to navigate the tournament in general and win these matchups. UMBC doesn’t know what to expect. But this year is a year when even if you have gone to the tournament a lot, it’s not the same. It’s not the same huge court set-up. There’s no homecourt advantage in the first few rounds. So in that sense, it’s pretty new to everyone.”

Cristina Robertson said if her players are nervous about facing Pepperdine, they’re not showing it.

“I don’t know if they’re crazy, but they’re pretty confident,” she said. “We know what we’re good at, and if we’re doing those things on serves and defense, we will be successful. Maybe we don’t have the 6-5, 6-6 outside hitter who’s going to put it down the line, but we have people who are very crafty.”

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Three years ago, the Retrievers men’s basketball team became the first No. 16 seed to shock a No. 1 seed in NCAA men’s tournament history. Ferketic said the volleyball team can tap that same vein against the Waves.

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“People will definitely overlook us, and we love using that to our advantage,” she said. “We’re an upset school, and I’m hoping that we can do it again.”

NCAA tournament first round

UMBC VS. PEPPERDINE

Omaha, Nebraska

Wednesday, noon

Video: ESPN3

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