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Maryland volleyball faces an uphill battle, but it’s on its way to the top

Head coach Steve Aird has the Terps recruiting better than ever. It’s only a matter of time before that turns into wins.

Volleyball Sammi Silber / Testudo Times

Tucked in the corner of Xfinity Center, far away from the thousands of red seats peering down over the building’s central arena, sits the Xfinity Center Pavilion. It’s the size of a large high school gym, with some 2,000 roll-out bleacher seats flanking the court. There’s a weight room across the hall, and an entrance to the building not far off.

For Maryland volleyball, it’s home. During Terps games, the Pavilion comes alive. Fans are loud. There’s a DJ. It takes a hard-hit ball to overtake the crowd noise. It’s a home court that can leave visitors with no place to hide.

For years, the arena’s capacity was more than enough for this program. Just four seasons ago, Maryland drew an average of 336 fans. One year later, the Terps hired Penn State assistant Steve Aird and switched conferences. That combination led to an attendance spike of nearly 300 percent in 2014, and the numbers haven’t dipped since.

The program’s current status lends itself to plenty of comparisons to Maryland football. Under a young, energetic head coach, the Terps are rising higher in recruiting rankings than they ever have before. New facilities are on the way. There’s a buzz around the team that there hadn’t been in the recent past. But a tough Big Ten slate will continue to be a massive hurdle for the foreseeable future.

“They could be No. 4 in the country and No. 4 in their division,” Aird said of DJ Durkin’s team. “In my world, we could be a top-10 team and be sixth or seventh in the Big Ten.”

Competing against bigger universities with more resources is never easy. Being the new school on the block gave Maryland an extra edge. Entering the Terps’ fourth year of Big Ten play, both programs are ready to make a name for themselves.

“We’re both underdogs,” sophomore Gia Milana said. “We’re both pictured being, ‘Oh, they’re just Maryland football or Maryland volleyball.’ So I think that they’re kind of like our brothers.”

The story of Maryland’s volleyball team isn’t as widely known as that of its brothers further south on campus, but it’s every bit as compelling.

Maryland’s program has been around since 1971, when women’s college volleyball was in its infancy and not yet governed by the NCAA. The Terps have enjoyed on-and-off success in their nearly five decades, but never approached the sport’s top tier. The NCAA Tournament has been around since 1980; Maryland has never advanced past the second round.

Aird was hired in January 2014 to lead the Terps in their move to the Big Ten. Since taking the helm, his recruiting has turned heads throughout the sport. In 2016, Maryland brought in the country’s No. 16 recruiting class, per PrepVolleyball. The momentum continued into 2017, when the class ranked 10th. Twelve of the Terps’ 18 players for this season come from one of those two groups.

This isn’t a program that should be bringing in such classes. Maryland hasn’t finished a season with a winning record since 2010 and hasn’t reached the NCAA Tournament since 2005. But Aird had a vision, and kids started buying in. A couple years into his College Park tenure, those commitments became high-profile signees.

“I think it had a lot to do with the school, I think it had a lot to do with the region, I think it had a lot to do with the opportunity,” Aird said. “For a lot of kids, they could have gone to a program and been their 45th All-American or however it rolls.

“It takes a certain kind of human to look at a place and say, ‘Everyone thinks you can’t do it,’ and then get turned on by that, that they want to do it.”

Milana was the first domino to fall. The 6’2 outside hitter was an Under Armour First Team All-American, and she committed to a program that had only one top-50 recruit in its history (in 1997, before she was even born). In her freshman year, the Romeo, Michigan, native was unanimously selected to the Big Ten’s all-freshman team and earned an all-conference honorable mention.

Milana led the Terps with 446 kills in her freshman season.
Courtesy of Maryland Athletics

One year later came Sam Drechsel, a 6’4 outside/opposite hitter from Bothell, Washington. She was PrepVolleyball’s No. 23 Senior Ace in the 2017 class, and like Milana earned a First Team All-America nod. The headliner of Maryland’s best recruiting class ever was easily sold on helping lead a program to prominence.

“The main thing that made me want to go here, he was asking me, ‘Do you want to build something great? Do you want to be on the forefront of something great?’” Drechsel said. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, that sounds good, let’s do it.’”

Maryland added three other top-150 players in 2017, and Katie Myers, PrepVolleyball’s No. 62 recruit in 2016, is finally healthy after missing last season with an injury. The Terps are gaining depth, and experience will follow shortly.

They’ll need all the help they can get.

Playing a Big Ten volleyball schedule is like entering an enclosure of bloodthirsty wolves. The conference is filled to the brim with powerhouse programs that can and will leave an incomplete team in the dust.

Nebraska, Minnesota and Wisconsin were the top three seeds in the 2016 NCAA Tournament. That trio was joined by No. 9 Michigan State, No. 12 Michigan and No. 16 Penn State—the Nittany Lions, who won six national titles in an eight-year stretch from 2007-14 (Aird was on staff for five of those), are playing catch-up in their own conference again. Ohio State and Purdue also earned at-large bids into the NCAA Tournament, with Illinois and Iowa not far behind.

“If we go four years with top-end classes,” Aird said, “we’re going up against eight or nine schools who have done that for 30 years.”

In its first three seasons in the league, Maryland was overwhelmed, finishing with a combined record of 12-48. The Terps placed 11th out of 14 teams in the conference’s preseason poll; eight of the 10 teams ahead of them are in the top 25 of the AVCA Coaches Poll. Even approaching .500 in conference play would require Maryland to become a postseason-caliber team.

“[The toughest thing] is doing it, rinsing it and repeating it,” Milana said. “You have a tough game, you’ll be like, ‘Wow, that was tough, they’re really good.’ And then you get to the next game and they’re good too, and the next [team] is good. It’s a nonstop assault. It’s like a volleyball assault.”

Aird with outside hitter Liz Twilley in 2016.
Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics

To prepare for that two-month buzz saw, Aird put together a challenging non-conference schedule highlighted by September’s Maryland Challenge, where the Terps will host No. 3 Washington, No. 26 USC and Oklahoma on the Xfinity Center’s main floor. In the opening weekend, they’ll play Temple, who returns the majority of a team that was 47th in the country in RPI last year. Six of the Terps’ 12 non-conference opponents posted RPIs far better than Maryland (No. 141) in 2016, and five others weren’t too far behind them in the top 200.

“If we play teams that aren’t at the expectations that we hold ourselves to, then it’s gonna be really tough to go from them to a Big Ten team,” Milana said.

The Terps have had their moments. They upset a ranked Ohio State team each of the last two seasons, and took two other ranked teams to five sets last year. But to be competitive over a 20-match conference schedule or a 34-match season, Maryland needs talent and depth. That’s why Aird built the team up the way he did.

“I wanted this program to be nationally competitive and sustainable,” Aird said. “It wasn’t about bringing in a whole bunch of transfers and trying to flip it in a year. It was the opposite. It was, I was going to build through the draft and take my time, do it the right way, really really be calculated about who I bring in. I try to protect the ecosystem at a high level.

“The kids that I bring in are meant to be here.”

Much like the football team, whose formidable schedule might keep the Terps out of the postseason, Maryland volleyball’s 2017 record might not match its progress. Aird got used to winning at Penn State—five national titles will do that—but has learned to stay patient as Maryland builds itself up.

“We could lose a bunch of matches this year, but the fun part is that the conference is gonna have to look at these kids for the next three or four years,” he said. “And at some point, because of how we go about our business, they’re gonna go from really inexperienced kids to kids who know the conference and know how to travel and have learned the lessons, and that’s gonna be a problem.”

The 2017 squad is about as young as teams get. Those 12 players from top recruiting classes are still just freshmen and sophomores, and the Terps only have two seniors. Earlier this month, Myers was named co-captain as a redshirt freshman. So Maryland will need to make up for its lack of experience by having everyone on the same page.

“Communication is key in anything no matter how old you are,” Myers said, “but especially being such a young team, it’s kind of just looking at each other like, ‘We got this. We’re good. Next ball.’”

Early in their careers, players often face the hurdle of not wanting to mess up. Milana had to overcome it as a freshman, and she’s suddenly one of the Terps’ veterans as a sophomore. She’s not worried about nerves or health anymore, and seems poised for an even more successful season than last.

“It’s a huge difference. Having one year under my belt just makes me so much more relaxed when I play,” Milana said. “I can see the court better. When you’re a freshman, there’s so many things going through your mind—‘What if my hair looks weird’ and all this other stuff—and I think age and experience really does help a lot more than people might think.”

Drechsel enters her rookie season with high-level experience as Maryland’s representative on the Big Ten Foreign Team, coached by Aird, this summer. “I think the main thing it gave me was that confidence, and now I know what I’m doing,” she said. It’d be a valuable trip with any coach, but Drechsel brought home a familiarity with her coach that made her even more excited to play in college.

“I think that the most important thing it did for her was showed her, before she played a college match, that she can compete with some of the best in the world,” Aird said. “And for a kid from a small town outside of Seattle who I’ve been telling for the last two years she can be special good, she’s starting to believe me.”

With Milana, Drechsel, Myers and a handful of veterans—expect to see plenty of senior Hailey Murray and juniors Angel Gaskin and Liz Twilley—Maryland’s core is in place. Aird knows, and his players know, that sooner or later, success on the recruiting trail has to translate into success on the volleyball court. Whether that happens in 2017 or not, the Terps are confident they’ll be a force soon.

“This whole roster, for the most part, is gonna be together for the next two to three years,” Aird said. “So as a coach, I want to make sure that they’re learning and developing and I’m patient with them. And at the same time, we have some talent that I think we can win some matches this year that people might not expect us to be able to win.”

When Maryland turns the corner, fans will notice. Demand for volleyball tickets will push the team onto Xfinity’s main floor more often. Aird-designed t-shirts will keep popping up on campus. The Terps will be a threat to everyone they play, and they’ll celebrate upsets in their new team suite.

“We’re kind of on the beginning of something great,” Drechsel said, “and I just want to see where that goes.”