After completing her senior season in April, University of Maryland volleyball player Erika Pritchard figured she’d take a shot at playing the sport professionally.
Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, though, the Middletown High School grad had another option.
Disruptions to athletic careers caused by the health crisis prompted the NCAA to grant an extra year of eligibility to college athletes like Pritchard.
So, Pritchard put her name in the NCAA transfer portal.
“Why not take it?” Pritchard said. “This year is so unique that I don’t want to regret not doing that while I can.”
She doesn’t regret that decision a bit, not after it landed her a spot on one of the nation’s most storied volleyball teams.
Pritchard, a 6-foot-3 outside hitter, has transferred to Penn State, a perennially powerful program that has captured seven national titles since 1999 under longtime coach Russ Rose. After graduating from Maryland in May, Pritchard will be a grad student player for the Nittany Lions.
“I put myself in the portal two weeks ago or three weeks ago,” said Pritchard, who decided to transfer to Penn State last week. “I was kind of in disbelief last week.”
As a middle school student, Pritchard got her first in-person glimpse of Penn State’s mighty volleyball team. She was wowed, and the thrill didn’t diminish when she found herself on the opposite side of the net of that very program as a Terps player.
“I remembered when I played them my freshman year,” she said. “It was just crazy to play against Simone Lee and Haleigh Washington, who are now like Olympians and on the national team and playing pro.”
For a high-caliber player like Pritchard, it was always a treat — albeit a challenging one — facing Penn State each season in Big Ten matches. But she didn’t get that opportunity during her final season.
“We had to postpone it because of COVID, we had a case on our team,” Pritchard said of the Penn State match. “That was only game we didn’t play this season.”
Nonetheless, she was just thankful to squeeze in one final season at Maryland after seeing the fall season get postponed until the spring because of the pandemic.
“It was kind of emotional my last game because it just hit me, this is going to be my last game with these people,” Pritchard said. “The seniors, we’ve been through so much. The original four that stayed, it was really meaningful and special to finish out with them.”
Pritchard ended her career at Maryland with a flourish, earning First Team All-Big Ten honors for the second time in her career and finishing as the Terps’ all-time leader in total career points with 1,790. This spring, she led the Terps in kills with 3.48 per set, finishing with a 1.76 hitting percentage, and was second on the team in digs with 2.01 per set.
As usual, she continued to make strides on the court, motivated to improve by internal drive.
“I think that my shot selection and decision-making when I’m hitting has definitely improved,” she said. “And I think that my overall game has improved significantly from my freshman year.”
Pritchard joins a Penn State team that lost in the NCAA regional semifinals to Texas, which fell to Kentucky in the championship match. She knows one of her new teammates, Nittany Lions defensive specialist Jenna Hampton, because they both were members of the 2019 Big Ten Foreign Tour-Japan roster.
After concluding her college career, Pritchard will look to continue playing the sport she excelled in at Middletown and Maryland.
“I want to play professionally after college, and hopefully see if I can get on the national team for USA,” she said.
While Athletes Unlimited launched a pro indoor volleyball league for women this year, aspiring pros have traditionally ventured overseas.
“Some people go to Europe, some people go to Asia,” said Pritchard, who has a friend that plays in France. “It’s kind of like where you want to go or what you want.”