When Maryland volleyball head coach Steve Aird agreed to play in the Pac-12/Big Ten showcase in 2014, he knew it would take a few years before his team would compete with the other teams in the field.
The Terps were swept by Pac-12 powerhouses Washington and USC that year, and then struggled against the same two teams and Oklahoma a year later. Heading into this year’s version of the tournament, called the Maryland Challenge, the Terps were just 1-8 all-time against the three teams in the field.
So when Maryland beat the No. 18 Trojans in straight sets on Thursday night, it seemed like a big deal for a program that had gone just 2-38 against ranked opponents in the past three years. But for Aird, who won five national championships in his six years on Penn State’s coaching staff, the win was nothing to go crazy about.
“After our game he said, ‘I don’t know about you guys, but I’m used to celebrating in December,’” sophomore outside hitter Gia Milana said after the victory. “He wasn’t crazy happy or anything, just really calm about it.”
Aird knows that these wins over ranked opponents need to be more than a once-a-year occurrence, especially if Maryland wants to take the next step in the ultra-competitive Big Ten.
“I’m hoping this is the first of many good wins,” Aird said following the win over USC. “There will be some times this year where we hit some speed bumps and we don’t look real good. I just have to stay patient with the young kids and keep battling.”
One of those speed bumps came the next day against the No. 7 Huskies, who handled the Terps in a straight-set victory. Instead of just admitting defeat and emptying the bench, Aird used the match as a learning experience for some of his freshmen, knowing that they’ll be in similar situations later this season.
The Big Ten currently has eight teams ranked in the top 25, and in one stretch in November, Maryland will have four road games in a row against the four top teams in the conference: No. 1 Minnesota, No. 2 Penn State, No. 5 Wisconsin and No. 10 Nebraska.
“I wanted to get the freshmen to feel completely uncomfortable and know what it’s like to be manhandled,” Aird said after the loss against Washington, “because that’s a very valuable thing when you’re developing and growing. I didn’t want to bail them out.’”
The experience was just one of many in a weekend Aird said was a “full gamut of emotions” for his team.
“We had a really good win, we had a steady win this morning, we had a team kind of come in and slap us around a little bit. The truth is always in between,” Aird said. “I told them after USC, we’re not there, we’re not a top-10 team, a top-15 team. And at the same time when you get swept by Washington, I don’t think we’re bad.”
Despite the tough loss, Aird expects his team will remain confident moving forward. It’s his fourth year with the program, which means he recruited and laid out his vision to each member of the team. It also means that they’re hungry as well, and don’t want wins like the win against the Trojans to be a one-time thing.
“That’s what we came here for, Milana said. “We didn’t come here to bow down to the better teams, we came here to bring a group of kids together that believes that we can flip something over ... and that’s what we’ve been saying since day one. “