Friday evening will mark the start of Steve Aird’s third season as Indiana volleyball coach, but it’s really only the beginning of an on-court rebuilding effort that Aird hopes will make IU a consistent competitor in the sport’s top conference. That’s because his staff signed the No. 15 recruiting class in the country last spring, the highest-ranked haul in program history.
And now, with an abbreviated spring season set to begin on Friday night, it’ll be those highly-regarded newcomers who’ll be tasked with pulling Indiana out of the depths of the Big Ten in the years to come.
“The thing about our sport that’s so different than football or men’s and women’s basketball is players don’t leave early,” Aird said. “So every lesson I can teach, all the reps that the young kids get, will pay off in a few years.”
And that’s really what the upcoming 22-match spring campaign is all about: tomorrow. IU only returns four players that played 17 or more sets in 2019, and of the 16 members of the roster, nine have never donned an Indiana uniform — including Aird’s eight freshmen.
So there was no surprise in Bloomington on Wednesday afternoon when the Big Ten published its preseason volleyball poll and IU appeared at No. 11. The Hoosiers return merely 28% of their kills, 40% of their digs and 15% of their blocking. If you look past juniors Breana Edwards and Kari Zumac, those figures fall to just 1.1% of IU’s returning kills and 1.9% of its returning blocks.
“(The roster) is gonna be really, really young,” Aird said. “The thing about it is they’re young and good. I expect us, if healthy, to be in every single match. I’m hopeful there’s not a match we get manhandled in. I also think we’re going to be more competitive than people think.”
Returnees like Edwards, an outside hitter, setter Emily Fitzner and libero Haley Armstrong will help with that objective. Edwards led IU with 361 kills in 2019, Fitzner posted a team-high 738 assists and Armstrong paced the Hoosiers with 324 digs. That trio will look for a boost from freshmen middle blockers Leyla Blackwell and Savannah Kjolhede — both of whom were Under Armour All-Americans in high school — and freshman outside hitter Tommi Stockham, among others.
“We’re gonna start four or five freshmen,” Aird said. “I think that’s great. Whether we go 22-0 or 0-22, at the end of the day it’s really the start of this Olympic quad of getting things going.”
Up first is Nebraska, one of the nation’s premier programs and a team that has been, at least historically, a class (or two) above IU. The Cornhuskers lead the all-time series 17-1, with the last IU win coming in 1978. Last season, Nebraska won the lone match, 3-1. It was the first time since 2012 that Indiana won a set against the Huskers.
But right now — and especially inside of a non-traditional season — the focus isn’t so much on gettings wins as it is on getting experience.
That starts this weekend.
“I think everybody has good energy,” Aird said. “This four-month thing is just bonus volleyball for me. It’s about getting people opportunities. We only have one senior and she’ll be back (in the fall). We have the opportunity to put the whole thing in a lab for a year and see what we can do.”