By Eric Myers
Head coach Steve Aird believes he already has one of the best liberos in the conference in junior Kelsey Wicinski, who ranks third in the Big Ten with 4.78 digs per set.
But in an effort to have another libero ready to step in when Wicinski’s eligibility is exhausted, Aird brought in a player from New York, who he believes has the intangibles to sustain Maryland’s proficiency at the libero position for years to come.
Freshman Samantha Burgio, who received accolades for her play in high school and club volleyball, is the heir apparent to the libero position for Maryland. The former 2016 Under Armour Honorable Mention All-American is playing an expanded role sooner than expected due an injury to Wicinski, who is “day-to-day with an upper-body injury,” per Aird.
During the early stages of the season, Burgio earned playing time as a defensive specialist that occasionally rotated in during sets. Without Wicinski, who has been sidelined the last four games dating back to an Oct. 13 match against Northwestern, Burgio is the new defensive leader on the court at the libero position.
Burgio became more comfortable with the transition to the college game after her decision to graduate from high school early and come to Maryland last spring. After opting to forgo her chance to play another season of club volleyball, where she would have played as an outside hitter, she came to College Park to focus on her future as a defensive player in college. With this decision, she was able to get a feel for the pace and physicality of the college game, while gaining cohesion with her new team.
“[In the spring], I was shocked at how much faster the game was,” Burgio said. “[Another benefit of arriving early was], as the girls got to know me, and we got this relationship, we have this relationship on the court where we all want to play well together.”
As the player who will succeed her, Wicinski has played an instrumental role in mentoring Burgio. Wicinski has helped Burgio in her passing, technique and feet when she’s fielding balls during practice and games. The junior libero also instills confidence into the freshman by reminding her to always be ready for her opportunity, and keeping her head up after receiving errors.
Another person responsible for Burgio’s technique and mindset on the court is assistant coach Kristin Carpenter. The first-year assistant on Maryland’s staff won two national championships as a setter and defensive specialist during her college career. During stoppages in play, Burgio can often be seen discussing the game with Carpenter.
Carpenter is one of the coaches who also helps to position the libero on the court, which is an adjustment from what Burgio was used to in high school, when she relied on her skill.
“She’s always helping me and she’s always in my ear,” Burgio said. “Having her is just so comforting, especially because she was in the role and she’s been through the Big Ten.”
While Burgio is still growing into her role, and the duration of her stint at libero this season is undecided — it will be dictated by Wicinski’s health — people in the program see her potential. The first year player already possesses some of the essential attributes of somebody who can compete at this high level of volleyball. Combine that with her desire to be the best player she can be, and therein lies the lofty beliefs about her future.
“Just how she carries herself everyday, and in practice. In the spring, sometimes she’d be here for two hours after practice,” sophomore Gia Milana said. “Yeah, she has the athletic capability and she’s fast, but [the desire] to go from a good to a great player is what she has. [She has] the intangibles: she has the work ethic, she has the drive, she has the attitude, she’s always excited for practice.”
For Burgio, it’s not just the different colored jersey that liberos wear that makes her stand out on the court. It’s also the energy and work ethic she brings to the team. Since she arrived on campus in the spring, teammates and coaches have noticed her work ethic, commitment, and energy during practice and games.
“[She’s handled the expanded role] the same way she handles probably everything in her life, she just attacks it,” Aird said. “If anything, we’ve got to get her to be a little bit more clam at times and trust her skills. But the fact that she’s got a little pitbull in her, I don’t mind… I’d rather that than having to coach somebody that doesn’t care.”