Getting Better Step By Step

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Welcome to the third installment of Terps Digest – a biweekly exclusive for that strives to give Maryland fans a glimpse into the personalities and storylines making news inside Terrapin athletics.

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – A weekend in College Park during conference plays finally awaits Maryland. It gets Rutgers on Friday night in a televised match (6 p.m., Big Ten Network). It faces Penn State in the main XFINITY Center arena on Saturday in what should be one of its best-attended matches of its home schedule.

It is, on the surface, about as significant a weekend as the Terrapins will have the rest of the way. And there’s no question coach Steve Aird’s team would like to collect a victory or two after falling at Michigan and Michigan State last week.

Yet this is still a program with a long-term plan and a team with plenty of youth. Improvement is the priority, something Maryland has already demonstrated in the early stages of this season.

“The good news is we’re playing a lot of teams that have a ton of experience and are starting a ton of seniors and people who are upperclassmen,” Aird said. “All the people on their benches are watching, whereas all of our kids are playing. That will serve us well a few years down the road.”

It might help even sooner than that.

"When you’re young, you kind of make these big steps, big strides. I feel like we’re kind of unpredictable.”
Sophomore Gia Milana

Aird’s construction project --- it’s a more apt term than rebuilding, given the program’s struggles for nearly a decade prior to his arrival and the massive jump in competitiveness when Maryland moved into the Big Ten --- was never going to be easy. It was always going to take time, and probably require more patience than he and his players would have preferred.

There’s a sense, though, that the Terps (12-4, 1-3 Big Ten) have started to turn the corner. Upsetting national contender Southern California three weeks ago was a good sign. Making it through nonconference play with only one setback (to a top-10 opponent in Washington) was another. Picking off Indiana on the road in the first weekend of league play was yet another.

Maryland is by no means a veteran team, not with just one senior (Hailey Murray) and two juniors (Angel Gaskin and Kelsey Wicinski) as part of its regular rotation. But it has at least some experience scattered across the roster, and with it comes some sense of what is to come between now and the end of November.

“Everybody’s who’s been through it before knows what to expect when it comes to the Big Ten,” Murray said. “We know how to win in the Big Ten and pick off matches in the Big Ten. I think it’s just a matter of communicating that to the younger guys and get over the learning curve so we don’t have any growing pains.”

Those might be a bit inescapable, particularly while navigating a league littered with top-25 programs. There’s not much anyone is going to do when they run into a hot team on the road, as the Terps did last week at Michigan State.

But there’s also considerable learning opportunities, and Maryland might have as much room for growth between now and the end of the season as just about anyone in the conference.

“When you’re young, you kind of make these big steps, big strides,” sophomore Gia Milana said. “I feel like we’re kind of unpredictable.”

The Terps, though, are definitely better. Deeper, too. In recent years, it’s unlikely they could have withstood the loss of redshirt freshman middle blocker Katie Myers, who suffered a knee injury in the defeat of Southern California.

That’s not to say they don’t miss her competitiveness and confidence. But freshman Jada Gardner got fast-tracked and is learning the college game on the fly.

“Jada’s a boss,” Milana said. “She doesn’t really get phased by much. Some freshmen get nervous. With her, it’s a stone-cold face. She knows what’s going on around her a lot. She has really good self-awareness, and she’s handled it really, really well.”

As has the entire program. Thanks to a wonky schedule, Maryland’s home Big Ten matches are largely backloaded. The Terps will play eight of their last 12 at home, and by then could evolve into an even greater threat to snatch matches from capable midpack opponents.

Aird sees a distinction between competing and winning, and Maryland has reached the point when it can compete. The early returns this year suggest winning might not be too far behind, especially as the current lineup continues to accrue game experience in the weeks and months to come.

“I think it’s another step,” Aird said. “It’s slightly better. There’s still a long way to go because the jump from good to great in this conference is high. We’ve had an influx of talent and we have some kids who play the game the right way, and their learning curve is really steep so every week they’re getting better.”