There’s something special going on in the volleyball program at UMBC.

The Retrievers have taken this “creating a team culture thing” a couple of steps beyond the norm, and it’s starting to pay off big. Graduate transfer Loren Teter calls part of the phenomenon “Mom Mode,” when third-year coach Cristina Robertson’s maternal instincts weigh in and start taking over for her volleyball-coach side.

“She has a child at home, and we have a really young team, so sometimes she goes ‘Mom Mode,’ and it’s really nice to have,” Teter said. “Half of our team is international, so I think it’s really a big plus that she gets this way, thinking, ‘Hey, these people are girls and they’re young women outside the gym. We have to make sure they’re functioning in their dorm or at home, not just on the volleyball court.'”

For her part, Robertson wanted to build a program with diverse elements from all over and she wanted it to be like an extended family. Actually, she can’t help it. Her husband, Terrence, is the assistant coach and lead recruiter, so this is a family affair. He’s the one who found Teter, then at San Diego State, in the transfer portal and helped bring her from California to Catonsville, Md.

“I just ended up here,” Teter joked. “I really like Cristina and how she put an emphasis on getting players she thought would gel with the team. That was important for me, going to a place that everyone was really supportive.”

Game. Set. Found a match.

Teter, a native of Redondo Beach, Calif., didn’t even visit UMBC. She liked what she heard, and with football-playing boyfriend Neil Boudreau transferring to Morgan State, Baltimore was a great destination. Like everyone during the pandemic, she was just ready for something new. And Robertson was constructing something new out in the county.

Facing the uncertain 2021 spring volleyball season with a roster that included five freshmen and three sophomores, Robertson saw just what she was looking for in Teter, a skilled defensive specialist with experience and maturity.

“We saw her level of experience and just got on the phone and convinced her why UMBC is the greatest choice ever — it is — I mean, the area, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., the level of academics, what we’re trying to build,” Cristina Robertson said. “I think she connected with us as coaches and with the team.”

And that’s what Robertson wants her program to be all about: those kinds of connections among the best student-athletes she can find, no matter where she has to hunt. Robertson has Retrievers from five different countries and four different states, including two from California and another from Hawaii.

“The most important thing for me was surrounding myself with great people,” the coach said. “The players, the coaching staff, the administration here is very supportive, as well as the academic side of the university. It’s all about the people.”

The Retrievers didn’t come with a volleyball pedigree, either. Entering 2021, UMBC hadn’t had a winning season in three years and just three in the last seven seasons. But Robertson’s vision for a program and extended family has quickly come together this disjointed spring season, perhaps ahead of schedule.

UMBC was tabbed fifth in the seven-team America East preseason poll, but the Retrievers posted their first campaign with double-digit wins since 2017 and went 9-3 in conference play. By virtue of a March 27-28 sweep of Hartford in two matches, UMBC captured a share of the America East Conference regular-season crown.

The Retrievers then chased down the tournament title with a five-set upset of perennial power UAlbany on the Great Danes’ home court. As such, UMBC earned its first automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament since 1998.

America East Rookie of the Year Darina Kumanova (Plovdiv, Bulgaria) led the way in the conference title game. Kumanova posted her eighth double-double with 22 kills and 17 digs. Junior outside hitter Paige Krenik (Foothill Ranch, Calif.) had 20 digs and the title-winning kill.

Teter had a career-high 33 digs. Conference Setter of the Year Aysia Miller (Mililani, Hawaii) had a career-best 58 assists. First-team all-conference pick Anouk Van Noord (Amsterdam) had 15 kills. Freshman Michela De Marzi (Milan, Italy) had 14 kills as well.

“The kids have just been working their butts off and it’s so nice to see them getting rewarded for something they’ve poured their hearts into,” Robertson said. “We’ve had a few injuries and only 11 players, but we’ve gelled together, and they all have a tremendous amount of trust for one another. They just feed off each other.”

Veteran volleyballer that she is, Teter saw the same thing and thinks the diverse backgrounds of her far-flung teammates have made the team stronger.

“A lot of them come from a culture much different than American athletes and you can see that in their mentality and how they play,” she said. “That’s honestly one of the coolest things I’ve seen on this team, how emotionally intelligent these athletes are and how we all come together. So much of being a Division I athlete comes down to the mental game. Not every day is your best day and being able to overcome that is so important.”

The pandemic has exacerbated the typical challenges for student-athletes.

“Some days you came in the gym and you thought it was going nowhere because you heard about positive tests [with other teams at UMBC and beyond],” Teter said. “You heard this sport hasn’t been cleared so that might be bad news for us. Or the conference next door just got canceled. Who knows what’s going to happen? Wear your mask. There have been a lot of obstacles.”

No fall volleyball season would be one big one. This spring, the Retrievers played their home games in the small auxiliary gym of the Event Center. They didn’t need seating because fans weren’t allowed. It’s not what athletes signed on for and have come to expect in the competition they love.

But Robertson challenges the team in practice, specifically putting her players in “uncomfortable” situations so game day comes easier for them. Mostly, though, she’s cognizant of making everyone feel valuable and at ease. She’s not just a big fan of imported Division I athletes, she was one. The then-Cristina Pintilie matriculated to Long Island University from Romania. She was named to the LIU Hall of Fame in 2012.

“I believe [recruits] trust me because they know I have been where they’ve been and I genuinely understand what they’re going through,” Robertson said. “I want them to know they’re not just a jersey. They’re part of a family here and we have your back. There are ups and downs, but teamwork, hard work and our culture are what I preach. This is a wonderful job. It’s like having 15 daughters and getting to do wonderful things for them and watching them grow.”

Photo Credit: Courtesy of the America East Conference

Issue 268: April/May 2021

Originally published April 14, 2021

Mike Ashley

See all posts by Mike Ashley. Follow Mike Ashley on Twitter at @lrgsptswrtr