Hailey Murray: An Unexpected Journey
As she prepares for her second college season, volleyball player Hailey Murray stops to ponder just how much she’s invested in a sport she came to far later than most of her teammates and opponents.
High school team. Club and travel squads. A busy freshman season at Maryland. A foreign tour with representatives from other Big Ten schools.
There are no half-way commitments for Murray. Not earlier in life, and certainly not now.
“All the time,” Murray said. “It’s a 24/7 thing. When I do something, I’m going to do it big.”
Or B1G, as is the case for the sophomore middle blocker, who was the only Terrapin to start every match in the program’s first year in its new conference. But it was about as random a path as possible to reach this point for the Washington, D.C., product, who never played team sports growing up.
Murray’s summer camp experiences ensured there was no appeal. She tried basketball when she was 6 or 7 years old. The result?
“I got hit in the head too many times with the basketball and I was like ‘I’m not doing this again,’” she said.
How about soccer?
“It was outside during the summer and I said ‘It’s too hot,’” Murray said.
Instead, her main extracurricular focus was ballet and, eventually, other forms of dance. Her parents signed her up for her first dance class when she was 2, and those experiences eventually led to dabbling in gymnastics and acrobatics.
Even at National Cathedral School, she was part of the dance team.
“I think I liked getting dressed up in costumes, but I just really enjoyed it,” Murray said. “I still enjoy music. It’s a good way to incorporate music into physical activity.”
It also, indirectly, provided an indirect entry to volleyball. One of Murray’s friends attended one of her dance recitals, bringing another friend to the event. That friend happened to play volleyball in college and was flabbergasted someone with Murray’s athleticism wasn’t playing a sport.
The pair prodded Murray into attending a summer volleyball camp. She had no intention of trying out, only for the camp coach to nudge her further.
“I had no clue what I was doing,” Murray said. “I think I wore a V-neck T-shirt. I didn’t own any athletic clothing. I showed up with a big bow in my hair.”
She also immediately made the varsity team.
“I think I liked getting dressed up in costumes, but I just really enjoyed it. I still enjoy music. It’s a good way to incorporate music into physical activity.”
- Hailey Murray on Dancing
“I recognized she was a good athlete, but she was relatively a volleyball novice. She was lucky enough to play in a good local club that has done a great job with players over the years, so I knew she would improve.”
- Head Coach Steve Aird
It was not, in Murray’s mind, a long-term commitment. She figured she would do it for a season and quit, having sufficiently satisfied her friends’ pestering. But in the middle of her first year, some club coaches approached her. She was puzzled. Why would she want to spend more time playing?
But she tried out on a whim, drawing more attention along the way. Soon travel coaches were recruiting her. Many of the same questions remained.
“They said ‘Come play travel,’ and I said, ‘Why would I want to play travel volleyball? That’s every weekend away,’” Murray said. “And they said, ‘College opportunities.’ Sports, college, the thought never crossed my mind. I just did it.”
Murray committed to Maryland as a high school sophomore, drawn in by the school’s science offerings. Although the Terps changed coaches just months before she was to arrive in College Park and top-50 programs took notice of her, she hit it off with new head coach Steve Aird.
He inherited a team short on depth that was about to take a substantial step up as it moved into the Big Ten. Just as Murray was heavily invested in volleyball at this point (having played extensively for the Metro American Volleyball Club), Aird was willing to invest heavily in her in their first season together.
“I recognized she was a good athlete, but she was relatively a volleyball novice,” Aird said. “She was lucky enough to play in a good local club that has done a great job with players over the years, so I knew she would improve. It was one of those things where she wanted to be here.”
There was also an instantaneous chance to develop. Aird made it clear things wouldn’t be easy as the Terps navigated the Big Ten for the first time. He wasn’t wrong; the league produced five teams that reached the NCAA tournament’s round of 16.
Murray appeared in every set last season (one of four Terps to do so) and led the team with 118 blocks.
“I threw her in the fire,” Aird said. “I knew we didn’t have a lot of depth, but I knew she was going to be able to grow leaps and bounds if she got experience. But there was going to be a lot of difficult things that went on both with her competitive success and understanding how hard it is to be really good at this level.”
Added Murray: “I learned a lot. The B1G’s a really competitive conference. I’ve seen and played against the best now, and I’ve learned that we can compete with the best. It just gives me a lot of hope about the coming seasons.”
So, too, did a summer tour of Croatia, Italy and Slovenia with a team comprised of fellow Big Ten student-athletes. While enjoyable for Murray, Aird hopes there is also a payoff as she delves deeper into her career.
“Because we’re right in the beginning of a multi-year rebuild, she was a kid who I thought had the most to gain from making that trip,” he said. “Whether it’s being around other kids in the conference who are already polished and able to play at a really high level or opening her eyes to what the game looks like internationally. Being the best player in the Big Ten is nice, but there’s a whole other level out there.”
Murray already has long-term plans outside of volleyball. She is majoring in environmental science, with a minor in sustainability, and is looking at studying urban planning and development in her post-grad years.
It’s plenty to juggle for a person who throws herself entirely into all she pursues. Still, it helps that one of the biggest changes she experienced moving from high school to college helps her achieve that balance.
“I practiced a lot throughout high school, but coming here it’s really nice having your school schedule compatible with your volleyball schedule,” Murray said. “In high school, it was a lot harder to convince teachers ‘I have to go away for a tournament and I’m going to miss school,’ and they give you a look and get kind of grumpy about it. Here, everybody is supportive.”
There remains a great curiosity about Murray’s potential. She came late to the game and grew considerably in her first college season. But Aird said there were also frustrations, the sort that could be expected given Murray’s high standards for herself.
Aird stressed that with a round ball and talented opposition, it is “not a game of perfect.” Flawless on the court or not, Murray is an important component in the Terps’ future.
“She has a long way to go and she’s right at the beginning,” Aird said. “She’s in the early chapters of a very long book. She could become a very good player in her mid-20s. A lot of volleyball players figure it out long after their college days. If she stays with it, she could be a very good pro. But the challenge now for our program and for her is how much better can she get quickly?”
In many ways, Murray encapsulates exactly where Maryland’s program is at the moment. In the long run, Aird plans to have veteran-laden rosters after stacking talented recruiting classes on top of each other. There are dreams of deep NCAA tournament runs and contention in the loaded Big Ten.
But it’s not an overnight process, and he envisions Murray providing a crucial bridge to what is to come.
“I never think it is fair for a freshman to come in and have to carry the load that she had to carry last year,” Aird said. “It speaks to where we are as a program. But she will in my mind in the next two years be a complementary piece and a very important one. We have exceptional talent coming in over the next few years and her leadership and her drive is going to help dictate and build the foundation of where this thing goes over the next 5-10 years.”
That, of course, was the furthest thing from Murray’s mind when she picked up volleyball only just five years ago. It’s a path she never could have predicted, but one she fully embraces while also appreciating the obvious “what if” tied with her introduction to the sport.
“It’s really cool,” Murray said. “I think ‘Where would I be right now had my friends not pushed me and teased me and gotten me to do it?’ I don’t know where I’d be right now. I wouldn’t be here, probably.”
“She has a long way to go and she’s right at the beginning. She’s in the early chapters of a very long book.”
- Head Coach Steve Aird
Hailey Murray: An Unexpected Journey is a special presentation of umterps.com.
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