Steve Aird led the Terps to 10 wins last year in their first season in the Big Ten. They won six straight games to start off the year. This season, the Terrapins started 9-0, a mark that hadn't been accomplished in a decade. They have already matched their win total from last year after going 2-1 at the Kristen Dickmann Invitational last week.
Maryland will face their toughest challenge to date this season when they take on Oklahoma, Washington, and Southern Cal at the Oklahoma Invitational. Washington is ranked in the top-10 while Southern Cal is ranked in the top-5. Maryland hasn't faced teams this tough yet this season but they will be facing ranked teams for the majority of their Big Ten schedule.
The Terps go into the Oklahoma Invitational a little thin as injuries continue to wear on this team that is already short on depth. Angel Gaskin might play for the Terps on Thursday and Friday but Aird said that the coaching staff is still monitoring her and doesn't want to rush her back too quickly. The coaches said that Gaskin is a tough kid and wants to play but this is a situation where they have to protect her from herself a little bit.
I caught up with Aird before the Terps left for the heartland and asked him about the upcoming tournament, his expectations for the rest of the season, and whether anything or anyone has surprised him so far this season.
Whether the team is progressing each week
"Yes and no. I think the yes part is the system and the players we have are getting better. I think that's good. The sad part is that the injury bug has hit a little bit so we're short some of the pieces right now...When what can be controlled gets solved, I think we have a chance of being a little better than we were a year ago."
Breaking down Washington
"Washington is a team that, the year before I came here (when he was at Penn State), we had played in the Final Four. They return a number of their veteran players. They run a very particular system...They are very low error. Right now they lead the country in hitting percentage and they lead the country in opponent's hitting percentage."
In essence, the Huskies have a phenomenal defense and they don't beat themselves.
Breaking down Oklahoma
"They are a team that coming into the year had incredibly high aspirations. I don't think that's changed...They are physical, they are tough and they are really well-coached. And they're going to be at home which obviously is an advantage."
Breaking down Southern California
"USC might be one of the best two or three teams in the country. I think they have one of the best players in the country in Samantha Bricio (a two-time All-American and senior captain for the Trojans) who is an outside hitter, a Mexican girl who has been tearing up the country for years. They are physical. They have a lot of kids who are really highly-touted. They expect to contend for the Pac-12 Championship. Currently number three in the country and I think very deserving."
What he expects to accomplish at the OU Invitational
"Like I told the team, I never go into a match believing there's not a way to win. I don't care who we're playing or where we're playing. I think I want their mentality to be that they expect to compete. I think last year there were a lot of wide-eyed kids who had no idea what it looked like and this year is different. Even the kids that are freshmen have been around and have seen us play matches where the environment is intense and the play is high."
"My thing is that I want to compete. I want to see how we fare against the best in the country because for the next 20 matches, we're going to have to play the best in the country...I'm confident that it'll be a better performance than a year ago and hopefully the country will say, "Hey, they've come a long way in a year." and they understand who's coming in recruiting-wise and we're going in the right direction."
On the ongoing setter competition
"For me, it's still wide-open. I think our best line-up is in a two setter system. The two that do the best job are going to play and I think that's going to be an ongoing battle as the year goes on."
Options to counter the big, physical front-lines Maryland will see this weekend
"I don't know if I have many. The bottom line is that if we have a healthy squad --we're kind of thin to begin with--I think we're pretty physical and we match up pretty well against a lot of people. If we have an injury or two, it's going to be different. We'll find a line-up that'll compete. We'll have to be creative but I want the compete level to stay high."
On the team's readiness for Big Ten play this year
"There are a lot of lessons left to be learned. When it comes to skill level, when it comes to physicality and experience, we're behind a lot of the Big Ten teams. But there's excuses and then there's winning. I want to get to the point where I say, "We have enough tools to be competitive and if you can stay close in matches, serve the ball well and compete, you have a chance to win."
"I want to be in a situation this year where we have the opportunity to win some matches. I think as long as we stay somewhat healthy, we're going to be able to do that."
Any players that have surprised him so far this season
"Liz [Twilley] has surpassed my expectations. I knew she was a pretty good player. I just didn't think she'd be physical enough to score...She's been a pleasant surprise."
"The entire freshmen class are ahead of where I thought they'd be and I thought they'd be pretty good...The thing I'm really excited about, and that the freshmen bring to the table, is we're going to be able to attack from all different sides of the floor. We have kids who can hit out of the middle, the left and the right."
"I thought coming in that all four of them would play and they have. Maybe I expected a little bit more freshmen moments from them where they make some errors and do some dumb stuff but they're a little bit more mature than I thought they'd be and they're not scared at all. That to me was an unknown."
What has the team done well and what do they still need to do to improve?
"They've trusted the training and when they've stayed with the system and they play at a confident level, they've been really, really good."
"On the other side of the coin, what they have to realize is that if you hit the ball out of bounds or you make an error, it's not the end of the world. The competitive maturity of 'we lose a game' or 'we don't play well for a rally' can't get in the way of the next game. That's the one thing I want them to get a little bit better at. That mental toughness part of it."
I don't expect Maryland to win any matches at the Oklahoma Invitational but I expect them to scrap before the overwhelming amount of talent on the other side of the court becomes too much for them to handle. They'll be going up against two of the best teams in the country. They're not ready to beat this level of competition but I believe they will surprise some people when they start Big Ten play. Health is the key. If Maryland can stay healthy, they'll be able to win some Big Ten matches and really turn some heads with how far the program has come in a year. If not, they are going to have a very tough time trying to compete, much less win. That is the bottom line.