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College Sports

‘Complete turnaround’ propelled UMBC volleyball to third straight America East title, NCAA Tournament berth

After growing up in California, playing volleyball at Pepperdine in Malibu, California, and coaching at his alma mater, Stanford and Miami, Kasey Crider has settled in at UMBC. With one exception.

“I love the area, although I will admit that it’s getting a little cold,” he quipped.

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Aside from the weather, Crider seems to have made himself at home in Catonsville. Only nine months removed from being hired to succeed Cristina Robertson, who left for Florida International, Crider has helped guide the Retrievers to the America East Tournament championship for a third straight season.

UMBC (17-8) will meet No. 4 seed and host Penn State (24-7) in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday at 7:30 p.m.. The winner will face the winner of No. 5 seed and American Athletic Conference champion UCF (27-1) and Ivy League winner Yale (23-2) on Saturday at 6:30 p.m.

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And Towson, the Colonial Athletic Association titlist for the fourth consecutive season, earned a No. 8 seed. The Tigers (29-1) will clash with Georgia (22-7) on Thursday at 6 p.m. at Gregory Gymnasium at Texas with the winner meeting either No. 1 seed and Big 12 champion Texas (22-1) or Fairleigh Dickinson (17-15) on Friday at 9 p.m.

In his first year, UMBC coach Kasey Crider, center, has helped guide the Retrievers to the America East Tournament championship for a third straight season. They will meet No. 4 seed and host Penn State (24-7) in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday.

This fall’s success has been gratifying for the UMBC players who overcame the departure of Robertson, her coaching staff, four transfers and two incoming freshmen to reach this stage of the postseason.

“There’s been a complete turnaround in our program,” senior outside hitter Kamani Conteh said.

Finding themselves in this position might have appeared to be a distant proposition shortly after the Retrievers’ 2021 campaign ended in December with a straight-sets loss to No. 3 seed Pittsburgh in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. A month later, Robertson asked the players to attend an online meeting.

“During the meeting, she said, ‘Unfortunately, I’m going to leave,’ and the girls reacted,” said junior outside hitter Weronika Wrzesinska, who ranks second on the team in digs (230), fourth in kills (111), sixth in aces (16) and seventh in blocks (31). “They were crying, and I was very surprised because it was not something that I was expecting.”

After Robertson’s announcement, then-junior middle blocker Beste Ayhan, then-freshman outside hitter Kira Givans and a pair of incoming freshmen followed her to FIU. Senior Andjelija Draskovic, an All-America East second-team setter, transferred to Florida State, and sophomore setter Emily Fleckenstein transferred to Florida Southwestern. And then-freshman middle blocker Lauren Cox agreed to play professionally in France.

Crider, the associate head coach at Miami, said he began talking to UMBC athletic director Brian Barrio, who knew Crider from the former’s time as an associate athletic director at Pepperdine from 2011 to 2015 when Crider was a setter and volunteer assistant coach. Crider said the turmoil didn’t give him pause about accepting the job offer.

“I didn’t go into the situation with my eyes closed,” he said. “But I think we did a good job. I think the athletes pretty quickly got to a place where they trusted us, and more importantly, they understood that we trusted them and that we cared about them and that we wanted to go through this with them.”

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From left, UMBC’s Mila Ilieva, Weronika Wrzesinska and Kamani Conteh celebrate match point to capture their third straight America East Tournament championship.

Nonetheless, Crider was left with a roster of just 12 players after last year’s squad had 16. And an unspecified injury that limited freshman outside hitter Emily Genau to just five matches often prevented the team from running internal scrimmages during practices.

But Crider said he prefers a smaller roster because he can concentrate on developing players’ abilities. Conteh said Crider has been more detail-oriented than Robertson was, refining players’ serves and emphasizing scoring quickly through assorted mini-games.

“We’ve done a lot more in-depth drills,” said Conteh, an All-America East first team and All-Tournament team selection who ranks second in overall kills (375), fourth in aces (26) and fifth in digs (156) and blocks (42). “One of the things that I love about Kasey’s coaching is that he really focuses on us individually to make us better individual players.”

The players and Crider found their rhythm quickly, earning a Top 25 RPI win against James Madison on Sept. 9 and stringing together eight consecutive wins. But the team encountered a rough stretch when it dropped three straight America East matches, opening the door for Binghamton to capture the regular-season title.

“It was hard mentally,” Wrzesinska said. “But the one thing pushing us was the staff. Kasey and the coaches were saying, ‘We still believe in you.’”

From left, UMBC’s Serin Maden, Kamani Conteh, Weronika Wrzesinska and Aysia Miller celebrate a point during the America East Tournament.

After a five-set setback at Bryant on Nov. 11, Crider shifted Conteh from outside hitter to right side and Wrzesinska from right side to outside hitter and added freshman setter Bird Alford (77 assists) to complement freshman starter Serin Maden (916). The changes paid off, Conteh said.

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“I think seeing how we played [in a three-set victory over Albany on Nov. 13] gave us confidence that we have what it takes,” she said. “But it was obvious that we had to focus on one match at a time because we couldn’t walk into the tournament thinking, ‘Oh yeah, we’re just going to win.’”

The program’s third consecutive league championship would seem to validate Crider’s decisions. But he credited the players for embracing his suggestions.

“We’re not going to complain about it, we’re not going to whine about it, we’ll absolutely make the adaptations,” he said. “And not only will we make them, but we will see them through.”

Enjoying its highest RPI at No. 73, UMBC last played on Nov. 20 and has used the time to get healthy and fine-tune its schemes. Conteh said she and her teammates are hungry for their first NCAA Tournament win in five appearances.

“We don’t want to just get to the tournament and say, ‘OK, well, this is fun,’ and then go home,” she said. “We want to keep going.”

NCAA Tournament First Round

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UMBC at Penn State

Friday, 7:30 p.m.


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