Indiana volleyball hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2010.
The Hoosiers have had one first team All-American in the 44 year history of the program, and they have never won a Big Ten title.
The challenge was very real when head coach Steve Aird took over in 2018, and in that short span the conversation has already shifted from what hasn’t been to what could be.
There is a genuine optimism surrounding the IU volleyball program, perhaps more so than at any time in its history.
It’s easier for Aird to have that kind of forward looking, optimistic view, even if it comes with a healthy dose of caution — because he’s seen this show before.
IU hired Aird away from a Maryland program with a similarly less than stellar history, and by year two the Terrapins had 18 wins — the program’s most since 2010.
What can be expected of Aird’s second season in Bloomington?
“Initially I could tell you that I think we’re a heck of a lot better than we were a year ago,” Aird told The Daily Hoosier.
That statement is significant, because Aird’s first IU team was ahead of his turnaround pace at Maryland.
The 2018 Hoosiers picked up six more conference wins than the 2017 team, knocked off No. 14 Michigan, and barely missed the NCAA Tournament.
On paper Aird believes he has the pieces to keep the momentum going in year two.
“I think we’re better at every position. I think we’re more physical. I think we’re a lot harder to score against, and I think we have a whole bunch of arms and veteran kids who can play the game the right way.”
Sounds good, right?
If you picked up the five “I thinks” in Aird’s observations on his team, that wasn’t by accident.
With only two and a half weeks of practice allowed under the NCAA rules before the the first game, truth be told, Aird isn’t entirely sure what he has just yet.
Aird knows he has brought in more talent, but until he can get a closer look he will tell you that he has “no idea how that is going to translate.”
Part of the uncertainty is due to roster turnover. Half of the roster — 9 of the 18 players — are new to the program.
Included in the nine new faces is Emily Fitzner, the younger sister of former IU basketball player Evan Fitzner. Aird, who brought with him to IU a reputation as an elite recruiter calls Fitzner “one of the top recruits in the history of the program.”
The talent level is no doubt on the rise in Bloomington, but Aird needs to see some live game action to fully appreciate what he has assembled.
For a coach that has spent time at Penn State and Maryland and knows the Big Ten very well, the uncertainty for Aird extends beyond his own roster.
The league is widely considered to be one of the elite volleyball conferences in the country.
“We could be four or five points better a game this year and just a vastly improved volleyball team, but the conference right now has 7 teams in the top 17 and 5 in the top 10,” Aird said. “It’s harder to win the Big Ten than it is to win a national championship.”
“You really don’t know how the kids are going to respond to it. Nine of the kids have never played in the Big Ten before. I don’t know how it’s going to work out. But I know that we’re better.”
While the head coach has understandable questions about his team, there is a buzz surrounding the program for the first time that has the fans feeling enthusiastic.
So much enthusiasm in fact that more than a thousand fans showed up for the team’s scrimmage last weekend.
The energy around the program extends beyond the team to the new $20 million Wilkinson Hall that IU volleyball now calls home.
IU will see their first competition at the facility this weekend when they host four home matches beginning on Friday afternoon against Florida International.
Wilkinson Hall sits on campus, directly next to Assembly Hall, and should provide students and fans alike a more accessible and enjoyable experience than the program’s predecessor off campus home court.
What will fans see when they come to an IU volleyball match?
It could be a couple more years until Aird can recruit and assemble a roster that is truly ready to compete at the top of the Big Ten.
He isn’t promising wins for those that come to Wilkinson Hall and support his program. Not when faced with the realities of the conference.
What Aird can promise for now is an upward trajectory for the program and an entertaining and competitive product on the floor for fans.
“I think our job is just to be better,” Aird said. “I know this for sure, we’re going to be a heck of a lot better than we were a year ago, and we are going to be fun to watch.”
See also: 2019 IU Volleyball Schedule
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