When Maryland volleyball coach Steve Aird took over in 2014, people questioned the logic of moving from an assistant role at Penn State to a struggling Terps program.
But he looked at the other sports at Maryland — such as women's basketball, field hockey and lacrosse — and saw an opportunity. The winning culture was there.
Aird's ability to draw talent to College Park gave his vision credibility.
In 2016, PrepVolleyball Fab 50 recruits Gia Milana and Katie Myers headlined the program's first-ever ranked recruiting class. This year, Aird secured a top-10 recruiting class, putting the Terps in contention for their first winning record since 2010.
"We've kind of broken through on the national level in terms of it being a destination for top recruits to come play," Aird said. "The last piece of the puzzle is just going to be competitive success."
Maryland failed to reach more than five conference wins in its first three years in the Big Ten.
In 2017, the Terps, featuring 12 underclassmen, will play 15 teams that competed in the NCAA Tournament a year ago. And while they improved with their top-10 recruiting class, five of the nine schools above Maryland on PrepVolleyball's class ranking are in the Big Ten.
But the competition is a major reason Maryland attracted top talent.
"It's a combination of the level of competition and just everything this university has to offer," senior middle blocker Hailey Murray said. "Obviously, the Big Ten is probably the highest level of volleyball you'll get to in the United States at the collegiate level. Then in addition, our staff, the Maryland athletic department and the campus, you can't beat it."
Milana spurned offers from perennial Big Ten powerhouses Penn State and Wisconsin for the opportunity to help build the program in College Park. Despite the team's 12-20 record last season, Milana finished second in Big Ten Freshman of the Year voting and was a unanimous All-Freshman Team selection. She led the Terps with 446 kills and ranked fifth in the conference with 3.91 kills per set.
"The current players are really your best recruiters," Aird said. "If they're having a good experience, they'll share that with recruits."
Milana was the only PrepVolleyball top-100 recruit available to play last year after Myers redshirted due to a knee injury. Next year, the Terps will have three top-100 players in its freshman class, plus a healthy Myers.
Outside/opposite hitter Samantha Drechsel is the second Under Armour First Team All-American to come to College Park, following Milana. Murray, as a freshman, remembers sitting with a high school-aged Drechsel in a Starbucks during a visit to campus.
Murray was honest with Drechsel about joining the tough Big Ten, telling her it "was one of the hardest things you'll ever do in your life, but it's so worth it."
"I remember having that conversation, and I'm just so glad she's here now," Murray said. "We were definitely really honest with her and nobody sugarcoated anything."
The straightforward approach stems from Aird, who acknowledges the difficulty of becoming relevant in a conference in which Purdue, a school that finished 10th in regular season conference play, still made the NCAA tournament.
"It's really typical for the Big Ten to do very, very well recruiting-wise. It's atypical for Maryland to have a top-10 class — it's never happened," Aird said. "We're really expecting a pretty big jump in our quality of playing level going into this season."