By what measure can a season be considered a success? Certainly not by 10 wins and 21 losses. Nor by a 3-17 record in conference play. An 11 match losing streak that included seven 3-0 sweeps is certainly no indication of success. But no reasonable observer could have expected very much on court success as Maryland volleyball began its transition from finishing with losing records in four of their previous six seasons into one of the two best volleyball conferences in the NCAA.
In 2014, the Terrapins needed to look for other means to measure success. Rather than wins and losses, for first year coach Steve Aird and his staff success would come from winning hearts and minds. Winning the hearts and minds of his players by getting them to understand the time and effort they would need to put in not only in always playing hard in competition but in the off-season as well. Winning the hearts and minds of Maryland athletics and the supporting community by convincing them that they are integral to the process of building a successful program. And winning the hearts and minds of 16 and 17 year old girls who will become the young women who will propel Maryland volleyball into a new era of competing and succeeding at the highest level.
Testudo Times talked with Coach Aird to get his assessment of his first year at Maryland. Here's what he had to say.
TT: One of the goals you set for this season was to create a buzz around the volleyball program. Let's talk about an objective measure of that namely attendance.
SA: I would say the way the community came out was one of the things I was happiest with this year. Maryland finished 26th nationally in attendance after finishing around 180th last year. The support from everyone around here was unbelievable.
Readers should note that Maryland's average home attendance increased four and a half fold from 336 in 2013 to 1,539 in 2014. This increase occurred despite the Terps instituting an admission charge for the first time in program history.
TT: We first talked the day Maryland announced your hiring and one of the factors you mentioned that helped you decide to take the job was (Athletic Director) Kevin Anderson's vision. What are your feelings about that now?
SA: When I look at the new indoor football complex and the continued relationship with Under Armour and the things that Kevin's been able to do at the helm, his vision is right where I thought it would be. He's been impressive because a lot of people talk about stuff but he does stuff. Maryland's only halfway through our first year in the Big Ten and I think what he's been able to do with the Athletic Department has been awesome. That being said, I think that he may say the same thing about the direction our program's heading. On certain levels I think we've gone over and above what he thought would be possible such as how we're doing with recruiting and attendance and the buzz about the sport at Maryland which I think are all pretty healthy right now.
When we talked with the coach in June, Aird talked about some of his challenges with the current roster from getting them to understand the rigors of travel, to the hostility and size of B1G crowds, and to the physicality they would face on nightly basis. He also talked about the need to get them to reconnect with their love of the game. Here again, the process of program building took another small step forward.
SA: I think they had a really good experience. Eye opening, but good. From how we travel through how we prep them, our day to day interactions, our scouting, I tried to do it as much as I could the same way I've always done it. I wanted it to be a first class experience.
I didn't want the expectations to be so high that they felt like they were going to let me down the whole year. What I wanted was for them to enjoy coming to practice every day and for the most part we did that. At this level it's hard because you have to play hard non-stop every day. But I think if you were to ask the team I think they had a really good experience and learned a ton. That's probably the most valuable part of the equation.
Maryland finished the first half of the conference season with a 2-8 record. Both those wins came against Rutgers a team that would finish the season without a conference win. The Terps opened the second half of the season playing perhaps their worst match - a three set loss at home on the last Friday in October to an Iowa squad that was only one spot above them in the standings.
The next night, they faced a Nebraska team that would reach the Elite Eight in the 2014 NCAA Tournament. Though the Terps dropped another straight set match, two of the three sets against the Cornhuskers were highly competitive and featured 21 ties and 9 lead changes. Here's what Aird had to say about what happened next as his team hit the road for games at Ohio State (Sweet 16), Penn State (Final Four), Purdue, and Nebraska:
SA: We had a stretch where we played four of five matches against teams that went at least as far as the Sweet 16. Coming out of that we pretty much finished up against teams that were still very very good but not in the top quarter of the conference. (Ed. Note: This excludes the straight set loss at home to Penn State.)
I think they had a stick-to-itiveness that liked. And they kept working and getting a little bit better. So I think in those last matches we saw the combination of the kids improving, having more opportunities to score and starting to believe that they were getting better. When we went on the road and won a game at Nebraska, it might not seem like it's a big deal but for a team that didn't have a ton of competitive success to go on the road in that atmosphere and win a game against a team that was an Elite Eight team is something that a lot of those kids have never felt before.
Though Aird cited the match at Penn State as the season's tipping point, he also thought the accumulation of experiencing high level volleyball in front of big crowds in hostile arenas beginning with the challenge of playing USC and Washington on the west coast combined with those small victories like winning a set at Ohio State and one at Nebraska helped the Terps push Minnesota to a fifth set, force at fifth set at Iowa, before ending the season winning a five set match against Northwestern.
Despite the improved competitiveness on the court, Aird still sees much room for improvement off it.
SA: Some of the kids competed the way I wanted them to. Until a team is fully on board and you've got everyone in the locker room who believes in the same vision and is doing all of the right things when nobody's watching, I think until you get to that point, then you're always faced with people who could be better. Better teammates. Better players. I don't think we're fully there and we weren't during the year. I think people were there for a week or a month but it gets hard. What they're learning is if you want to have competitive success you can't be hot and cold, part on and part off.
Before the season, the coach set 10 wins as the floor to a successful season. He told us he would have lowered that floor had he known in advance that he would lose Adreene Elliott for the season. He called Elliott one of the better athletes on the team and cited her as a player he would be hard pressed to find a B1G team that wouldn't want her on their roster. The team reached 10 wins in spite of losing Elliott and at one point having "a quarter of our roster unavailable." But Aird, in a way, was glad for those struggles.
SA: If you come in and you have success too early then I think the kids start to think it's easy. And it's not easy. We had three wins in the conference and we could have easily lost all three of those. We could have lost two or three preseason matches that went four or five and we'd have three or four wins on the year but I wouldn't look at it any differently.
Still, Aird managed to take his depleted "not ready for prime time" roster and guide them to a point where they could win a set on the road at Ohio State, to win a set at Nebraska after being swept by them earlier, to win two sets against Minnesota and Iowa after losing to both of them in three sets in the first meetings, and to turn a five set loss at Northwestern into a five set win in the rematch at College Park. Throughout the season, Aird typically took responsibility for the team poor performances. Looking back, he still feels that way, "I think if I was a better coach we would have done better and I would have been able to get more out of everyone," he said.
In spite of the coach's feelings, his team showed demonstrable on court progress. Not only were they playing closer and more competitive matches at the end of the season but, in nearly every case, they improved their play when they met a team for the second time. That seems to be an outgrowth of coaching.
Without intending any disrespect to his current squad, one of the goals Aird set when he arrived at Maryland was to recruit better athletes. Much like Randy Edsall and his staff have had to adjust their recruiting efforts to attract bigger, more physical offensive linemen, so Aird has had to focus on athletes who can match the physicality of the teams in the Big Ten.
However, because of scholarship limitations and the nature of volleyball recruiting, the coach and his staff have placed much of their focus on 2016 and beyond. Since these players cannot yet sign letters of intent, no one on Maryland's staff can talk about specific recruits. However, they can convey their excitement about the class in general and your intrepid reporter can scour a number of public and membership sources to provide you, dear reader, with a look down the road at some of the players whose verbal commitments to the Terrapins have many in the volleyball community admiring all Aird and his staff have accomplished in just ten months.
But first there's 2015
Fans will notice some changes in Maryland's 2015 roster. Although the coaches cannot discuss it, sources close to the team have indicated that at least two other players, in addition to the four departing seniors, will not be on the 2015 roster. The 2015 freshman class Will Likely consist of four or five players but before they reach College Park,
"I think the most important thing that can happen with the entire program going forward now is how much better the returning players can become between January and August," Aird said. "I want to see how committed they are to putting in the work to get stronger and get better as volleyball players. Can they take the experience of the year in the Big Ten, can they make some lifestyle changes, and can they commit to doing what it takes to have competitive success and that will let us take the step forward I expect us to take. If the core of them commits to it, it will be easier for the new kids to come in and get acclimated."
Two of those new kids coming in are Liz Twilley and Kelsey Wicinski. Twilley, a 6'1" outside hitter from Ijamsville, Maryland, just outside of Frederick, helped lead Oakdale High School to their first ever Maryland AA state championship. She hit .410 for the season - the third best percentage in Maryland - and upped her game in the championship match hitting .581 while notching 19 kills. Only three players in the state rang up more kills than Twilley and her average of five kills per set was Maryland's second best. Here's a quick one-off of Twilley (#14) picking up a kill for her club team
Wicinski is a 5'8" libero from Geneva, IL who shares a volleyball pedigree with her two older sisters one of whom, Lauren, is an outside hitter who graduated from Michigan State last season as a unanimous All Big Ten selection. The Spartans also recruited the younger Wicinski as did Illinois and Iowa. Of her commitment to Maryland Wicinski said, "I wanted to set my own path and not follow in my sister's footsteps." She chose Maryland because, "It's the Big Ten, I love the coaches, and it's just a beautiful campus."
Regarding his expectations for 2015, Aird said, "The new kids coming in are going to provide us with some depth but I'm not going to be relying on any of them to come in and carry the program. As a staff we've explained to the kids that are returning that that's their responsibility. If they want to be the group that flips it and takes this program forward for the next five, ten, or fifteen years, it's going to be what they do in the next six months that determines that."
To 2016 and beyond!
Program transforming commitments. For Brenda Frese it was Shay Doron. For Randy Edsall it was Stefon Diggs. For Mark Turgeon it may be Melo Trimble. For Steve Aird, it will be Gia Milana.
Barely four months into his tenure at Maryland, Aird received a verbal commitment from the 6'1" outside hitter from Romeo, Michigan. In addition to leading her team to a state championship, Milana was recently tapped as a third team All-American by USA Today. She is the only player from Michigan on the 21 player three team squad and one of only seven who is not a senior. Here's a highlight reel for Milana who is also wearing number 14 in either the light blue or white jersey.
With Milana on board, dominoes began to fall. Just more than a month after Milana's commitment, Auburn, Indiana setter Taylor Smith and Katie Myers, an outside hitter from Westerville, Ohio joined Maryland's class of 2016.
And the momentum continues into the class of 2017 as Maryland continues to attract recruits from all over the country. Leading the way was Alexis Alden a 6'0" outside hitter from Waukesha, WI whom Testudo Times wrote about back in July.
More recently, the staff has added Samantha Drechsel, a 6'3" outside hitter from Bothell, Washington and Jada Gardner a Texan whose uncle is Shane Battier. By most reports, Gardner is exceptionally athletic. Meanwhile, in her sophomore season, Drechsel averaged 5.6 kills per set tying for the top spot in the state with senior Katrice Pond. According to MaxPreps, Pond was also the only player in Washington with more raw kills than Drechsel's 498 and Drechsel was one of only a dozen players in the state who exceeded .300 in hitting percentage.
Aird also recognizes the importance of locking down the top local talent. In the last two years, two Montgomery County players have taken their talents to Gainesville where they have become All-SEC players for a Florida Gators squad that reached the Elite Eight this season. "Maryland wasn't even an afterthought for the top local players. But the energy is growing and as we continue to build on it, we'll start keeping those kids home."
It may take a year or two but keep your shades handy.