By Dustin Dopirak
Before he addressed anything volleyball related in his media day Zoom press conference Friday, Indiana coach Steve Aird began by wishing happy birthday to his wife Brandy and thanking her for all the work she has done home schooling their kids with the COVID-19 pandemic making in-person instruction difficult. He followed that by thanking the frontline workers dealing with the virus directly and said he and other members of the team took coffee and donuts to the people who conduct their COVID-19 tests every day at Assembly Hall.
“For all the frontline workers, healthcare workers out there, it’s the most important thing to say thank you for everything that you’re doing,” the third-year Indiana coach said. “You guys are heroes, so we appreciate it.”
All of that is to say, Aird has a big-picture understanding of all that has been lost in the year of the coronavirus. He’s had friends and family members who have had the disease and players who have had it as well. So he wouldn’t wish for a repeat of the past year in 1,000 lifetimes. and called it the hardest year of his coaching life.
“To be a student-athlete over the last 10 months, to be a young person going to college for the first time, to not be able to see people,” Aird said, “Many of our players had COVID and had to deal with isolation and the loneliness of that and no connectivity. It’s been really, really hard for a lot of young people. They’ve been fantastic to get through it.”
But if you were to isolate the question to whether or not his extremely young team reaped some benefits from moving volleyball season from the fall to spring semester, giving them four more months to work out together and bond before they ventured out into what is by far the toughest volleyball conference in the nation, well, he’d have to admit that they have.
Of the 16 players on Indiana’s roster, eight are freshmen and four more are sophomores. The only senior, Brooke Westbeld, is a transfer from Dayton. Of the seven returners, just four appeared in 17 or more of the 126 sets the Hoosiers played last season.
So the fall gave the Indiana coaching staff an opportunity to start at Square 1 to build the new Hoosiers into college-ready players. They got 20 hours a week of strength and conditioning training and eight hours a week of on-court volleyball and they didn’t have to use any of that time on game prep or accelerate instruction faster than their players were willing to go.
“Any volleyball we got in the fall was spent with foundational things and basics,” Aird said. “It’s like teaching kids how to dribble and pass and shoot in basketball. It’s the same thing. We have a lot of young kids who are talented, but we have to get back to the basics. If you take away the pandemic as just being tragic, it’s been great for our program to be able to have this much time with young people.”
The Hoosiers’ youth is by design. Aird wanted to build a core he could build the rest of the program around, and he believes this freshman class can be that core. The Hoosiers’ class was ranked 15th in the country by PrepVolleyball.com and it gives Indiana a lot more size from its front line. The class includes three middle blockers — Elle Hillers, Savannah Kjolhede and and Leyla Blackwell — who all stand 6-foot-3 or taller. There are also three outside hitters in this class, including Tommi Stockham and Morgan Geddes who are each 6-2.
“We’re gonna start four or five freshmen, and I think that’s great,” Aird said. “Whether we go 22-0 or 0-22, at the end of the day for me, it’s really the start of this Olympic quad of getting things going. … They have to be (the core we build around.) When it’s the highest ranked class in program history and you’ve got a bunch of kids that are highly decorated, they knew what they were getting into.”
The returning players who do expect to play have had success. Junior outside hitter Brena Edwards led the Hoosiers with 3.47 kills per set last season and sophomore setter Emily Fitzner led Indiana with 5.86 assists per set last year. The size the freshmen bring should create more options for the Hoosiers to attack.
The youth will probably still be an impediment for Indiana after a 14-19 season that included a 3-17 home record. They will face a gauntlet in the Big Ten with six conference teams rated in the AVCA Top 25 to start the season including No. 1 Wisconsin, No. 5 Nebraska, No. 7 Minnesota and No. 9 Penn State. The Hoosiers begin the season against the No. 5 Cornhuskers at home on Jan. 22 and Jan. 23.
But Aird believes this Indiana squad has the talent to hang in there with those top programs.
“It’s going to be really, really young, but the thing about it is we’re young and good,” Aird said. “I expect us, if healthy, to be in every single match. I’m hopeful there’s not a match we get manhandled in, and I also think we’re going to be more competitive than people think.”
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