When I sat down with Maryland head volleyball coach Steve Aird before last season, he talked to me about his plan for turning Maryland into a perennial national powerhouse. To say that Aird was excited about his incoming class doesn't seem to do justice to the word "excited".
This incoming class is the highest-ranked recruiting class in Maryland volleyball history. These five young women--Gia Milana, Katie Myers, Taylor Smith, Megan McTigue and Nell Drummey--might all start for the Terps next season.
Gia Milana is the crown jewel in the class. A top-15 recruit and Under Armour All-American, she's the highest-ranked volleyball recruit to ever come to College Park.
Milana enrolled for the spring semester to get a jump on getting ready for next season. I sat down with her at the Xfinity Center and asked her about her transition to college and what she hopes to accomplish at Maryland.
On why she chose Maryland
"I visited colleges and I kind of went by feel. I visited several other Big Ten schools, and it just didn't feel like I would be pushed to be my best...I've known Steve since he worked at Penn State when he recruited me as a player and we hit it off. I loved him as a coach, as a person, and as a trainer."
"When I saw that he was at Maryland, we communicated and he said, "Gia, you just have to come and see it." At that point, I was getting frustrated because I had visited a lot of schools and still didn't find that ONE that I wanted to go to. I visited Maryland and the atmosphere was different than any other school I'd been to."
"Everyone here is so excited for where the sports are going, how good the academics are, how everything is research, how everything is going deeper into everything."
"I would prefer building something that is not yet established than going to somewhere already established. I feel like it's what I'm used to doing. I'm for the underdogs beating a great team. That's what we did at my high school...That's just always been how I do things. Coming here, it's going to be like second nature for me."
On being away from home
"It's very different. I think my parents are freaking out about it more than I am [laughs]. I come from a small town, country setting. Around here it's more compact and crowded. Here it's like "Go! Go! Go!" It's very different, but I think that I'll be better for it. It's a good thing, but I'll be very excited to go home.
On her experience in College Park so far
"I've been on campus about a week...It's completely new...And the warm welcome with the snow! I'm from Michigan, so it's like "You're at home now."."
"I can tell that I'm going to be pushed, but in a way that will really give me a sense of fulfillment. Everything will be hard, so I'll be pushed to be a better me."
"Right now, I don't even know how to get to Xfinity from my dorm [laughs]."
On the incoming freshmen class that she's a part of
"We have some BEASTS coming in. Legit BEASTS. We have so much talent coming in and not just the talent, but the way they go about what they do...Their attitude...They kind of have a chip on their shoulder. They're done with losing...We're [Maryland] a program that's building, but I want to be to the point where we're built quicker...We're all really excited to get here and start working out, getting volleyball bodies so we can play volleyball against these top teams in the country."
"It's having the 'M' on your shirt and thinking people see us as an underdog, but we're going to surprise some people."
On how the incoming class is going to change the program
"There's little choices that you make each day, you know? What am I going to eat for lunch? Am I going to have vegetables or mashed potatoes? Am I going to go out tonight or am I going to sleep? I think that's what the program has been missing in past years. With the girls coming in, I feel like there's a similar mental mindset with how we want to do things. I think that the program is heading in the right direction in that aspect. That's what I'm really big on...How are we going to live? It's a choice...Are you going to slack off? No. We want to win. It starts with the little things."
"It's a completely different mindset. There's definitely a different mindset in the way that we will go at it, that we want to go at it. They [the rest of the incoming class] do have that chip on their shoulder that has been missing in the past years of the Maryland program. That's where we want to head towards."
On improving her game before the season
"First of all, I've never had real physical training [the weight-lifting and nutrition regimen]. The whole body-building thing is something that I'm really going to excel because of."
"I'm in no case experienced in volleyball. There's so much in volleyball you can fix. There's so much you can learn. I need to jump higher because these girls are huge and the blocking height is crazy. In order to be more effective, I need to be stronger physically and jump higher and be more consistent. Hitting is a huge thing and my all-around game is just being consistent mentally. Mental is a big thing for me, and passing too. It's everything really! You can always increase your skill in volleyball. There's always something you can do."
"I enjoyed high school, but I'd rather be here. In the spring, it's more about working on you, working on your skill set, and working on your body; getting into that mental mindset that I'm here to work hard, and I'll do whatever it takes to get myself ready so that I can help the team more."
On her expectations and what's she looking forward to in her freshman year
"It's going to be really, really difficult...Being a student-athlete isn't easy."
"Being a freshman, there's a different feel to everything. The way I want to lead this semester is I want to lead by example. I want to go to bed early, I want to make the right eating decisions, and I want to put myself in the situation where I can work hard every day...That's more my personality. I don't like to talk much. I like to do things."
"Of course there's going to be times when I won't and I'll be like "It's Wednesday and I still have three more months of this. I'm dying. My body hurts." I'm going to have weak points...at that point, I'm looking forward to looking to them [teammates] and them to look to me for that sort of encouragement."
"I'm so looking forward to finding out what I want to do for the rest of my life. Volleyball is great and I have goals for volleyball, but there's what am I going to do after volleyball. That's something that my dad and my mom have always pushed me towards...I'm looking forward to finding my passion intellectually instead of physically...Being around people more is really, really cool. I have three sisters, so I was never able to be alone. I never wanted to go out and be social. It's nice to start making friends and get involved with people on a deeper basis...It's all so fun to be part of something that is so great."
"A goal for myself would be to lead by example and better myself physically so that I CAN lead by example. As a team, I want to compete against these teams. I want to win. That's all I want to do. I don't want to work my butt off and then lose the next day. That's not something that athletes want to do. They want to win. They play to win. That's what sports are. My goal for my team is to establish that relationship where we can really click and gel so that we can win games against teams that people think we should lose to. I want to surprise people."
The Bottom Line
You know how when you're talking with someone, you can get a real sense of whether or not they believe in what they're saying? You can get that sense of whether someone doesn't just talk the talk but actually walks the walk. What we're searching for is that feeling of authenticity, that their words match their actions and vice versa.
When I speak with Steve Aird, I know I'm speaking with someone authentic. He believes in what he says and his actions back it up. When he says that he intends for Maryland to be a perennial powerhouse, he means it. There are times where I don't just hear how passionate he is. I FEEL how passionate he is.
I came away very impressed with Gia Milana. She's soft-spoken but very articulate. She's insanely talented but very humble. But perhaps most impressive of all, is her authenticity. Lots of athletes spew cliche`s, but Gia Milana believes in and intends to follow through on everything she says. She came to Maryland to build this program and build a legacy. She won't settle for anything less.
Am I saying that she'll be an All-American as a freshman? No, but I think she has a legitimate chance to earn all-Big Ten honors. Am I saying she won't struggle? Of course not. She'll have her fair share of freshman moments.
The comparison that comes to mind when I think of what Milana means to this program would be Diamond Stone. Both are out-of-state players who chose Maryland over more established programs. Both were All-Americans and both were ranked in the top-15 nationally as recruits. While Stone came to a team that was already really good, he gave Maryland's program legitimacy by choosing the Terrapins. That is what Gia Milana has done by coming to College Park.
Aird is heading into his third year at Maryland. He is bringing in talent, both this year and in each of the next four of five years, the likes of which this program has never seen.
Aird told me that when he arrived in College Park, he and the coaching staff wanted the Terps to be a scary team by year three; a team that other teams didn't want to play. By adding players like Milana, McTigue, Myers, Smith and Drummey, this team will be scary next season. Top-15 Ohio State won't be the only ranked team that falls to the Terrapins next season.
Gia Milana and the other freshmen are the future of Maryland volleyball. Right now, the future looks pretty damn good.