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Looking both ways - Aird talks Maryland volleyball

Maryland's volleyball program is on the verge of taking the biggest leap in program history preparing to open conference play in the Big Ten. Head coach Steve Aird sat down with Testudo Times to look at the highs and lows of the season to date.

For the third time in his first eight months on the job, head coach Steve Aird sat down with Testudo Times to talk about Maryland volleyball this time in anticipation of the Terrapins' opening their inaugural Big Ten conference schedule. He has been frank, open and exceptionally generous with his time. Aird is a pragmatist and a realist. He knows that his squad of very good volleyball players is unlikely to pick up many wins against the elite players found on most of the teams in the Big Ten. When it comes to his program, he is also ambitious and optimistic for the future. Here are some highlights of our nearly hour long conversation.

State of the squad, part 1

Aird inherited a team that had nine of its fourteen players injured, had losing records in two of the previous three seasons and was about to transition into perhaps the best volleyball conference in the NCAA. Still, he had high expectations and the 7 wins the team has recorded thus far are already one more than Tim Horsman recorded in his first season with the Terps.

TC: Now that you're through the non-conference part of the schedule, what, if anything have you seen from the team that has been better than you thought it would be, is about where you expected to be, or is behind where you expected to be.

Aird: We got off to a pretty good start. we won our first six matches and of those six we could have lost three or four of them. We won a couple five gamers and I thought the younger players, Hailey, Sam, some of the sophomores were doing some nice things. I thought they were getting better. Hailey was all-tournament team at one one of the tournaments we went to. That was a pleasant surprise. Any time you're a true freshman and you're thrown in the mix and you're doing some nice stuff, I thought that was good.

We've been battling injuries so we haven't had our best lineup be healthy. I think that's what I expected. Maybe I was more hopeful - hopeful that we would have been in a position where we had a pretty good idea of what the lineup would be and we were somewhat healthy and we could keep improving.

As for what's behind, I think that you want them to learn lessons before they happen. There's an expression, ‘Experience is what you get...after you need it.' I want them to learn stuff more quickly but I think the reality is that you have to be in situations where they feel it and it clicks and they can say ‘Okay, I guess that's what he means.' Maybe the best part of the west coast trip was that  sometimes in practice you can tell them that this has to be better or that has to be better and this is why, it's not until they play two really good teams that really show them the why that they finally reach that point where they think, ‘Okay. I get it now.'

TC: We didn't talk after the weekend at Appalachian State. Did you expect to fare a bit better in that tournament?

Aird: I thought we had a chance to win the Radford match but Radford beat Cal so that got my attention and I thought they had to be a pretty good volleyball team and they were. That's the match where Adreene (Elliott) broke her finger and we really didn't have access to her for the end of it. And then we beat Georgia State without her and Appalachian State is, I think 12-0 or 14-0 and they've beaten Louisville and Tennessee. I thought the match might have been closer but we were also in a situation where we were undermanned, so to speak. We didn't have much success in the first two games against Appalachian State so we tried changing things up but we just ran out of time. They're a pretty good team and they deserved to beat us. They were better than we were that night. Still, if we'd been able to pull the match out against Radford, we'd have been 8-1 and we'd be 8-3 right now and instead we're 7-4 and it's about right. It's about where we deserve to be, I think.

TC: The last time we talked, one of the problems we talked about was the players getting off their feet too much defensively because they just aren't physically strong enough to run through the ball. Is that something we're going to see compound as the team gets into conference play?

Aird: To compete at the top of the Big Ten it takes a 365 day commitment. So of the 14 or so kids we had in the program, we had three or four of them stay over the summer and get physically stronger and develop. Then other people had different things that they had to do. But if you want to be elite and be able to win against really good programs, it takes a full year round commitment to it.

I think, coming into preseason, players that aren't physically strong, or haven't played a lot or are at some other disadvantage coming in, find that as the season goes on, it deteriorates. You're at your strongest at the start of preseason and as you go through the stress and competition of the season you're just trying to maintain that. You can't make gains. You're not working out intensely four or five times a week so you can't get that much better. That's not to say you can't improve because you can certainly tighten some things up in terms of skills but it's unlikely that you're going to come into a season and leave it dramatically better that you were when it started.

All the work has to happen between January and August. That's where not having a real spring season, not having that commitment to stay the whole summer, having issues with injuries that prevent that, catches up with you in season. It puts you into management mode. You're not in let's build mode.

TC: Looking at the stats, it appears that the main areas of concern are serve and serve receive, digging balls, and the first pass. Would you comment on those?

Aird: We're not a great passing team. Amy is a good passer and Emily is a good passer but past that we don't have a lot of people who are confident passing the ball. We don't have a lot of depth at that specific skill and it's the most important. It's disproportionately skewed. Eighty percent of the game is your ability to serve and your ability to pass. We've tried different rotations and lineups - putting people in different situations - but at the end of the day they have to get in the gym and get better. Like I said before, if players take a part time approach to it, it's really really hard to become elite at that skill because it's a repetition skill. You've got to do it over and over and over again so it becomes second nature and that's going to take time with some of these players.

West coast review

In preparation for B1G competition, Coach Aird took his team to Seattle to face a top five team in Washington and a top ten team - USC. We talked about how the Terps fared on and off the court.

TC: Let's talk a little more about the west coast trip. Did you feel like you got what you wanted out of the trip?

Aird: My goals going into this tournament were number one to get a seat at the table because it's a four year deal. So I think each of the years we come back we'll be stronger and stronger and stronger. That was my goal. Number two was to expose my kids to the best teams back to back probably that they'd seen in a really long time - if ever - so they could get a feel of what that's going to be like in the conference. So that was a check.

Number three was to get everyone in the program experience playing against that level of competition and everyone who traveled played. So I got everyone time so they could feel what that was like. And last it was to prepare them for how rowdy playing on the road can be. That was just okay. It wasn't as big a crowd as we'd expected. Maybe because we played Washington on Thursday night but it was still a decent crowd and a band and national television and those make for different pressures. So, other than winning, which is the reason you compete, I felt like we checked off the boxes.

TC: How did the team react?

Aird: I won't say they were happy because I think they were disappointed that they didn't take a game or put up an even better fight but they were happy with their fight. You go into those matches and you hope you play well. If you don't they'll beat you 25-8 and be done with you in an hour and be on their way. I think for them the fact that they can get to 20 points against Washington and 21 against USC, in their minds, they're thinking, ‘We fought and we didn't roll over' is good. That's something I've been on them about since I've met them. I'm on them all the time about their compete level.

I thought they left the tournament knowing that they're not 18 or 20 points worse than a Washington or a USC. I hope they're thinking that if we'd played a little better and executed a little better you never know we could be in the twenties and we could steal a game and I think they felt pretty good about that.

TC: In the first set of the Washington match, they ran out to a 22-12 lead and your team rallied with five straight points and then held off three match points. What does that show about them and does it give you something you feel you can work with?

Aird: Honestly, Washington was a better team against Wisconsin than they were against us. They were more up for that match. They probably got a little bit loose against us in that first game and then like good teams do, they tightened things up in game two and tightened things up even more in game three and probably if we'd played two more games we wouldn't have gotten any better result. But we could have rolled over, too and we didn't. My understanding is that this is a group that got a little accustomed to losing last year. But I thought they fought and they competed hard and that was the best part.

TC: And how about USC? In that match the third game was the closest and it looked competitive from the start.

Aird: In that game, we were tied at 20 and I think we made four errors on the final five points that they scored. But we were playing with them and we were doing some good things and we made them a little uncomfortable and forced them into a time out. I think that surprised them a bit.

To get back to your other question, it shows we have a fire but for us to win we're probably going to have to play the best volleyball we can play and hope that other teams have an off night. I think that's the truth. We're not complete enough yet to weather the storm if we make a lot of unforced errors and serve balls out and hit balls out. But the truth is we could play our best match of the year against a Penn State or Nebraska and not win and I'll still be okay with that if we're improving and getting better.

A new conference

TC: Do you sense that the team is excited about getting into the conference schedule or are they more anxious about what's on the horizon?

Aird: I think the west coast trip gave them a sense of how high the level of play is, how good some of the players are, and how physical some of the players are. When they're at the net and they see some of these kids who are 6'5" or 6'6" and strong, I think they saw the difference in pace and skill level but I don't think they're fearful of that. I think they like the fact that they're going to play against the best teams in the country but unless you confident and prepared and you feel like you've put in the work and you're ready to play in big time matches, it's hard to fake it.

I think it's a mix between thinking it's really cool that we get this opportunity but you have to have the preparation, the belief and self-confidence. If you don't have certain things it's hard to fake them. Good teams will expose that. If you can't pass the ball, they'll find you. If you're not a great blocker, they'll find you. For me I'm trying to work on what we can realistically get better at and focus on that.

TC: What are your expectations for the Big Ten season?

Aird: We'll go into every match expecting to compete and thinking we can win but honestly, I don't think there's going to be a lot of competitive success. This year will show them what it's going to take to have success at this level. I told them that in February but it's different when you go through it. What's more important will be our approach. Are we getting better from one match to the next? If we lose ten in a row, are we still playing hard, fighting for every ball, looking forward to getting in the gym, having fun and not getting down on ourselves.

In the end, it comes down to being about the person they're becoming. Life doesn't always treat you the right way. You'll have times when you want something and there are a lot of setbacks and a lot of issues and a lot of problems. How the team approaches that, how they deal with adversity, is going to be more important than wins and losses in how I measure success this season.

And then it will be how the kids who are coming back react. Are they going to hate losing as much as I ultimately do. Are they going to get into the gym starting in January or February and commit themselves to getting stronger and becoming the best volleyball players they can.

State of the squad, part 2

TC: Can we talk about the health of the team?

Aird: Adreene had surgery this morning and she's gone for the year. Some of the players have nagging injuries and are more day to day. Chavi (St. Hill) has tendonitis in her knee so I have to limit her practice reps. Carlotta (Oggioni) also has some knee issues and a pinkie finger injury. Crutch (Ashleigh Crutcher) has a shoulder problem so she's day to day.

One of the decisions we've had to make because of Ne's injury is to switch from a 5-1 rotation to a 6-2. (See note below.) Part of that is because without Ne, I need to try to find more offense. You're taking away our best point scorer and our best athlete. (Elliott averaged nearly 4 kills and 1 block per set.) This is an adjustment for Carlotta. She has to be a good teammate and accept that she's only going to play three rotations instead of six.

Whitney has never set at this level. She cares a lot. She spent her own money to go to a camp for setters this summer but she's learning on the job. The injuries also limit what we can do from a substitution point. Right now we have one front row sub we can bring in. I have only one player on the bench that if someone's having a bad night I can sub them in but other than that I have no one else I can bring into a match.

(Ed. Note: In a 5-1 rotation, the team uses only one setter who stays on court all the time as the players rotate clockwise through each of the six positions after each change of serve. In a 6-2 rotation, the team uses two setters. The first setter starts in the back row on the right. She'll rotate through the two remaining back row positions but when it comes time for her to rotate to the front row, she'll be replaced by a more offensive player - usually an opposite or in Maryland's case often a middle blocker - and the player who started as the opposite [or middle] will be replaced by the new setter.)

What's next

The Terps open their Big Ten season on the road at Illinois and Northwestern. (TT will have a preview later in the week.) They'll return to College Park to be a part of the B1G first weekend in October. The weekend that also includes Maryland's first home B1G field hockey and football games - both against Ohio State - also features volleyball's first home match this season. Coincidentally that also happens to be their first ever Big Ten match at home as Indiana comes to College Park on Friday night October third. The coach has some B1G plans that include a new look Pep Band, a new student section, a DJ and a bunch of promotions as well. The first time only happens once and Terps fans should pack the Pavilion at the Xfinity Center.

In addition to the fun things he has planned, Aird promises, "What people will see is a team that is going to compete. We're going to fight. We're going to play hard and be fun to watch."