The Maryland volleyball team has improved in each of Steve Aird's first two seasons at the helm. In 2015,, the Terps knocked off No. 15 Ohio State at home, Maryland's first win over a ranked team in over five years. In a short time, Aird seems to have his team trending in the right direction after years of mediocrity.
This year's freshman class, led by Gia Milana and Katie Myers, is the highest ranked in school history. These talented freshmen have the Terps primed to take a big step forward in Year Three under Aird.
The two biggest obstacles to success for Maryland will be its youth and its schedule. This is a very young team, and Aird is tossing his players right into the fire by playing the toughest schedule in the history of the program.
After a very manageable first weekend, the Terps will head to Lawrence, Kansas, to face a top-5 Jayhawks team that went 30-3 and made the Final Four last season.
They get Princeton, Towson, and Georgetown in D.C. before heading into the absolute maw that is the rest of their season.
After heading out west to play two top-10 teams at the Pac-12 Challenge, the Terps go on the road to face No. 3 Minnesota and No. 4 Wisconsin.
After the Wisconsin match, Maryland will still have two matches against top-15 Illinois, one against top-ranked and defending national champion Nebraska, two against No. 15 Ohio State, two against No. 20 Purdue, one against No. 9 Penn State, and another with No. 3 Minnesota. The Terps also have a combined three matches against Michigan and Michigan State who both received votes in the preseason poll.
That's how Aird plans on turning this team and this program into a powerhouse two years from now. Play the best teams, learn what the best teams do, do what the best teams do, and then start beating the best teams in the country.
Testudo Times at down with Aird before the team's Red and White scrimmage to talk about the talented incoming class, growing the brand of Maryland volleyball, and the upcoming 2016-2017 season.
TT: What are your first impressions of this highly touted freshman class?
Aird: Right now, I think they're a group of very excited, very talented young players. For some of them, they committed a couple of years ago so it has been part of a long-term vision of being better and helping the program improve.
Right now, they're sore. Their minds are sore. We've been trying to download as much information into them as possible and get them to understand the direction that we're headed.
TT: What are your expectations for the 2016-2017 season?
Aird: Part of the plan since I got here was to - every single year since I got here - have incremental jumps when it came to the level of play and the product that we were putting on the floor.
Each year that I am here, I wanted the team to look and feel and play at a higher level than the year before. I'm pretty sure that we're at a level that we haven't been at since I've been here. I think the level of play in the gym is good and the kids are fit.
That being said, I also decided to schedule perhaps the hardest schedule in the history of the program. When the [preseason] poll came out the other day, I think we play 14 or 15 matches against the top 10. Kansas, USC and Washington are in the top seven, Nebraska is one and Penn State is nine. We're playing almost half the schedule against the nation's top 10 (laughs).
When you do that with a bunch of young players, you have to set realistic expectations of what do you want. Our goal is to be in those matches and not to go into any of those matches with a feeling that we're going to get blown out; not to feel false hope, but to truly believe that we belong and that we can play at that level.
TT: What are some of the core principles that you've been trying to hammer into this young group?
Aird: Belief. Do you believe that you belong? Body language. Being a good teammate. Being a good human being. Really working on getting one percent better every day.
You can play really poorly and beat a team and you can play really, really well and not win. The goal for us is to keep playing better every single time.
TT: How do you expand the brand of your program and Maryland volleyball while playing an insanely tough schedule with a very young team?
Aird: (laughs) I think I always knew there was going to be pain. I wasn't going to dodge it.
We can take the program and throw them [the kids] in the fire and show them how hard it is to play back-to-back against really good teams. We go on a stretch of five straight matches where we play USC, Oklahoma, Washington, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
We're not going to be competing against top-10 teams the whole year. All of a sudden, a top-25 team doesn't look like the national team. The team develops toughness. That's why we're going on the road with this young group and we'll see if they can learn the lessons quickly.
TT: What was the turning point where it started to click for the team last season? Was it taking a set off of Penn State at home?
Aird: I thought it was the loss to Rutgers which happened right before that stretch of matches. The kids just assumed that if we showed up, we would win a match.The turning point was "How hard are you willing to work?"
Forget about worrying about wins and losses. Just start listening to me and just put your nose down and work. We had the hardest two weeks of practice that I can remember in my tenure here and we came out of it knowing we were going into Penn State, Nebraska and Ohio State. It was this gauntlet of top-15 teams.
You pound the rock and, finally, it cracks. We had a good match against Penn State and a good match against Nebraska. Then there was this confluence of things at home and the next thing you know, you have a pretty good win.
TT: Has there been a moment so far this year with this team that has surprised you as far as mental toughness?
Aird: Definitely. I think our hardest practice last year is now the new norm. [Last night] We trained for three and half hours and at the end of it, they could have kept going. They wanted to keep going. They're not afraid of the fight now.It's starting to matter more. When you put everything you have into something, you start to feel like you deserve results. I think that's a big part of where they're at right now. They feel like they've invested so much. We're close to the whole program being all in.
For the vast majority of the team, this really matters and they work really hard. This group, they go hard. It's an exciting time for them.
TT: What does the starting six look like right now?
Aird: Right now, we're at Plan B because Katie Myers is coming back from a knee injury. Katie is one of the most competitive and dynamic kids that I've ever coached. Five months after full ACL surgery, she's in full practice almost. She's in 80 percent of the drills. She's a cyborg. I've never been around a kid that is this driven.
She's prominently featured in Plan A. If we started tomorrow, she wouldn't play. I'm not going to sacrifice a couple of wins for that kid's career. She's too important, she's too good. Plan B is still good enough to be good.
We have enough weapons now that it's going to be fun to see how it develops. Katie is a really big part of the program and not just on the court. She's as close to a clone in ways competitively. You want to recruit a couple of kids that are very, very similar to you. She's as close to me in how she approaches stuff. It's really exciting. She's a pretty special kid.
TT: How you identify that quality in a kid?
Aird: Luck (laughs). Our staff [Adam Hughes and Kristin Kenney] is amazing. They set the table. The good news is that now Maryland is a destination. Some of the top kids in the country are taking a look at Maryland. We'll have had a top 15, top-20 class and next year, we'll have a top 15, top-10 class. It has gotten a lot more attention nationally.
Having depth in the program is something this program sorely missed. We're maybe a year away from having 18 on the roster and some of the kids on the bench are good enough to play in the conference. That's where it gets really fun.
TT: If Myers was ready to go, what would it look like?
Aird: I'd start Gia [Milana] and Lizzie [Liz Twilley] on the left, I'd start Hailey [Murray] and AshMac [Ashlyn MacGregor] in the middle, I would start Angel [Gaskin] and Myers [Katie Myers] on the right, and Kelsey [Wicinski] is our libero.
Then there's the setting battle. We have four setters:
The two seniors, Carlotta [Oggioni] and Whitney [Craigo], and Taylor Smith, who is a freshman, and Abby Bentz, who I moved back from a defensive specialist role to a setter role because we're going to need her to set going forward over the next couple of years.
So we have basically have four setters battling for two spots. If the wheels fall off or we have huge injuries, then we could go back to a one-setter system.
In this lineup, we are big enough all over the court. We are physical enough all over the court. We've got arms all over the court. With Gia being able to play six rotations, we always have a back row attack option from her. We do all of the things you need to do.
TT:How has the brand and perception of Maryland volleyball grown since you've arrived?
Aird: [This year] They had us ranked 39th nationally in the preseason which doesn't sound like it's a big deal, but we came in [when he took over the program] at 184th.The perception is that we have enough talent and the recruiting class was good and suddenly, now we are a match that matters. The public perception of that being the case makes it pretty special.
Internally, I'd like to think we're doing a pretty good job, but it's cool when people see it from the outside. We don't recruit this kind of class unless the first year's team had some belief in where it was headed. We don't get to where we are right now if last year's team didn't make a decision to really bear down and work in the spring and the summer.
We don't get to where we want to be in a couple of years unless we throw this group in the fire, learn what the best in the country do, and then go try to do it.
We've become a destination for top recruits. We're a match that people take seriously. There's a really positive vibe around the kids in the program, but I don't know if it's respected yet.
TT: What do you mean by "respected"?
Aird: Winning equals people turn out, people buy gear, and people want to represent that brand. I think in order for that to truly flip, we're going to have to win a bunch of matches, but I have to do the best job I can to educate people and help them understand the dynamics.
It's a lot like DJ Durkin and his team. I want to get to a point where my talent and their talent is similar, our support and their support is similar, and you walk into a match and say, "Hey, if we play well, we have a shot to win."
We are way closer to that than we've ever been here.
TT: What does the future look like for the program?
Aird: The seniors don't like to hear this, but it's the truth. In a lot of ways, I'm treating this season like an Olympic quad. You're bringing in this young group and in the next four years, I want to be really, really, really good. So I'm not going to sell out for this year because then you're taking away from what's going to happen in 2017 and 2018 and 2019.
Next year, we bring in 5 [players] and that's the roster pretty much for the next three seasons. You're trying to hammer home really important things with people now before the start of this two or three-year run.
Mark Turgeon said to me, "I love my team." When a coach says that, you know that they're in for a pretty good season or there's something special about it.
Right now I would say that I like my team. I'm hoping that, in the next year or two, I'll fall in love with my team.
TT: Do you think you've been able to grow the popularity of the sport on campus and maybe even in the state of Maryland?
Aird: Absolutely. We have the second-highest average attendance of any women's sport at Maryland.
The relationships with the high school coaches and the club coaches in the region has continued to grow. I think the people in the state of Maryland know that we want to be the flagship school in the state in terms of the best program in the state. We want to help volleyball in the state. That's been important. We've recruited a lot of Maryland kids so the local buzz is better as well.
I think we're starting to develop a pretty loyal fan base of people who want to come out and want to see it. It is becoming closer and closer to what my vision of what I wanted it to be.
TT: Do you think Olympic volleyball will help you increase the popularity?
Aird: If they've gotten a chance to see any of the Olympic stuff, (how fun the sport is, how fast the sport is, etc.) you get it. Once you come to a game, it's pretty easy to get hooked.
TT: What are you looking forward to most about this season?
Aird: I think these are kids that are up for the fight. It's one thing to say it and it's one thing to be it. I think they're really excited about playing the top teams in the country. They have a giant chip on their shoulder and they don't know what they don't know. They're going to play really hard and they're going to be exciting to watch.
We're at a point now where I think we are going to be in every match. It's going to be competitive and we're going to have an opportunity to win.
TT: When you got here, you said that you were going to lose a lot of matches the first year, lose a lot of matches the second year, be REALLY scary in year three, and then start piling up wins in year four. This is year three. Is this team going to be really scary this season?
Aird: We are absolutely on pace to do that.
There's not a match that we'll go into this year where people won't go, "Hey, you're going to have to play pretty well to beat Maryland." We're in a situation where we're going to come at you from all zones of the net.
We're going to be one of the better serving teams in the conference and the country.
It's not going to be a night where it's an automatic W on the calendar. We're going to get a lot more attention because it's going to be a dogfight with us no matter where we play.