IU volleyball missed the NCAA Tournament for its eighth straight year. The team went 7-13 in conference play. It had players reach career milestones that their counterparts could reach in nearly half the time.
Yet, IU sold out University Gym in its final home regular season game — a five-set defeat to No. 12 Purdue.
But if the team cannot produce consecutive winning years — it has only happened once since the 1999-2000 seasons — why should fans care?
Simply put, because the fans matter. They matter to a program that has little history to lure recruits and to create a culture.
In year one under Coach Steve Aird, he knew it mattered — that’s why it worked.
When Aird was hired last December, he took over a program that went 1-19 in the Big Ten. However, he almost immediately showed that the vibe around the team would be different under him.
At his introductory press conference in February, he spoke about wanting to create a carnival feel at games, about his players playing with a chip on their shoulder and about the difference between juice and sauce.
“Juice has got a shelf life, but over time in a couple of weeks it expires,” Aird said at the press conference. “But sauce is different. Sauce is thick, it can hang out in the fridge for months. We need a little sauce. We need girls to walk in the gym with a chip on their shoulder and have a little bit of energy with how they go about their business.”
He never hid his personality as the year went on, frequently talking about rappers and wanting games to be “lit.”
The team was supposed to have a new stadium — Wilkinson Hall — prepared for the home opener Sept. 21, but setbacks in construction forced the team to play in U-Gym all season.
That did not stop him from making sure the IU Drumline was there pregame along with a DJ, who was there to create an environment that fit into the culture Aird wanted with the program.
“The fans were fantastic,” Aird said. “The changes with the gameday experience, given the fact we were still in this building, were phenomenal.”
The fans clearly bought into the program as the team set a new record for average attendance with 1,262 attendees per game.
With the support of the fans filling the stadium, the team produced the most conference wins since 2010.
However, it came with consequences. Aird consistently said throughout the season that the team had little depth due to injury, highlighted by the team’s top attacker in redshirt junior Kendall Beerman tearing her ACL.
“It’s gonna take quite some time to get back, but as I’ve told her, she’s got one shot left,” Aird said. “The team just had to battle. I felt like we were duct-taping things together all year.”
Aird said the team’s offense struggled and that the team hurt itself at times with errors, but defense was much improved.
After recording 188 total blocks in 2017, the team had 309 this season.
This came in large part thanks to the play of junior Deyshia Lofton, who was named to the All-Big Ten Second Team. She had 26 solo blocks on the season to go along with 130 total blocks.
Lofton, Beerman and four other players will head into their senior seasons next year.
“That was a big class that I thought did a really nice job this year,” Aird said. “That whole class I thought was much better than they’ve been.”
The team went into its final week of the season needing wins against Purdue and Northwestern to have a chance of advancing into the postseason, creating pressure situations that most did not think the team would have.
“The misconception is that we were supposed to be good,” Aird said. “It’s funny how expectations get ramped up based on energy and vision.”
But despite expectations, Aird said he still wishes the team could be preparing for postseason games rather than the offseason.
“I’m still physically ill that we didn’t find a way in,” Aird said. “When you’re competitive, that’s how you look at it.”
Heading into the offseason, Aird said the emphasis will be on closing gaps between IU and other elite programs in the conference.
However, even though the team was in some tight matches with ranked teams, the step up is not easy.
“What got them to being pretty good is fine, but it takes twice as much now going from good to great,” Aird said. “It’s ‘businessy’ and cliché, but it’s the truth.”
Another key in improving will be making plays on the regular, rather than making them just to be competitive.
“Volleyball is a repetition sport,” Aird said. “You want to be able to do something really well 99 of 100 times. On the year, we were good 50 percent of the time, so that’s the gap we’ve got to close.”
He constantly spread the message of getting “1 percent better each day” and being an “everydayer,” but he said his first season was more so about understanding what that means.
“The next step is doing it,” Aird said. “The gap between what they say and do has to close.”
Aird said the upcoming offseason will be important on the macro-level for the program.
And if the team can execute and produce wins, it will lead to more national attention from recruits and more success in the future.
“We want it to be a program that is a destination program for top recruits,” Aird said. “It’s a really unique place.”
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