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Steve Aird, IU volleyball ready for 2019 season



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IU volleyball Coach Steve Aird encourages his team during fall camp in August 2018. The team's annual Cream and Crimson Scrimmage will begin at 7 p.m. Aug. 24 at Wilkinson Hall. Photo courtesy of Craig Bisacre Buy Photos

IU volleyball Coach Steve Aird was nervously watching TV in his basement, hoping history would be made.

Aird was born in Ontario, Canada, and the Toronto Raptors had a chance to finish off the Golden State Warriors in game six and win the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.

He remembers the expansion in 1995 when Toronto got an NBA team. He remembers trying to dribble a basketball on the snow-covered sidewalks in Ontario with his brother. He remembers the soaring Vince Carter days and the boisterous yet barricaded days of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. Yet no moment in those 24 years culminated to game six on June 13.

Aird has been with the Raptors every step of the way and watched, nervously, as Canada’s sole NBA representative made the necessary moves in the offseason to turn itself into a serious championship contender.

As IU volleyball announced its 2019 schedule Tuesday afternoon and gets set to play its first season inside the brand new Wilkinson Hall, Aird looks to turn the Hoosiers into contenders, just like his Raptors did.

Except when it comes to recruiting, scouting, coaching and changing the culture of an entire program, Aird has no nerves.

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IU played all 11 of its nonconference games on the road last season. The idea was for Wilkinson Hall to be ready for conference play and for the new era to usher in with Aird’s first year as head coach being the first year in the new arena.

But construction plans kept getting pushed back and soon the anticipation faded when the ancient University Gym, built in 1963, became the team’s home for the season.

That didn’t stop Aird and the Hoosiers from transforming the environment to higher energy and excitement.

During the 10 home matches in the U-Gym, cockroach and shark costumes could be spotted in the crowd. A drumline kept the energy upbeat and music blared over the PA system between each point.

The IU student section cheers after the volleyball team scores a point against Northwestern on Sept. 21 in the University Gym. IU won 3-1 against Northwestern on Friday before losing 3-2 to Illinois on Sunday. Steven Lin Buy Photos

It resulted in IU’s home attendance going up 600% from the year prior. Not only did the fans buy in, but the players did as well.

In 2017, IU finished the season 12-20 overall and 1-19 in conference play. Last year, with 11 of the 14 players being a part of 2017’s one-win conference season, Aird got the Hoosiers to a 7-13 Big Ten record and 16-15 overall.

Heading into the final two games of the season, IU had a chance to remain on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament, something the team hasn’t qualified for since 2010.

Aird said the delay of Wilkinson Hall’s debut turned into a blessing in disguise.

“In some ways, I’m actually really grateful because it’s given us a lot more time to plan,” Aird said. “Sometimes I think when you rush things, it gets done too quickly and it’s not as good as it could be, and we’ve had a pretty good runway over the last few months to be pretty fired up for when this thing opens.”

Wilkinson Hall will officially open Aug. 30 for the Indiana Invitational. The invitational will be a two-day tournament featuring four other teams — Santa Clara University, Marshall University, University of Tennessee Martin and Florida International University — with each team playing twice a day.

A volleyball net stands set up in middle court June 19 in Wilkinson Hall. Jay Wilkinson donated $10 million towards a new gym for IU’s volleyball and wrestling teams. Alex Deryn Buy Photos

The new arena will continue to have nonconference tournaments foes Sept. 6, 5 and 8 for the Hoosier Invite, which includes Oregon State University, Yale University and University of Oklahoma.

IU will travel for the first time Sept. 13 and 14 to Lexington, Kentucky, to take on the Florida Gulf Coast University, Cleveland State University and University of Kentucky.

Tampa, Florida will be where the nonconference slate rounds out for IU when it takes on Stetson University and plays University of South Florida twice Sept. 20-21. Aird said the final tournament in Tampa is just to get the team acquainted to traveling via plane and staying in hotels before Big Ten season begins.

“The preseason this year I think is as challenging as they’ve had at Indiana in a long, long time,” Aird said.

When IU went 1-19 in conference play the year before Aird was hired, the team’s nonconference record was 11-1.

The Big Ten is one of the toughest conferences when it comes to collegiate volleyball, so Aird said he believes in scheduling a tough nonconference slate to better prepare his team for the Big Ten.

IU’s Big Ten schedule starts Sept. 27 against Minnesota, the defending Big Ten champs, where the Gophers will raise the banner. IU will face Wisconsin, who Aird said might be the preseason favorite to win the conference this year, on the road two days after that.

“I think traditionally with this program, the concept was to get as many nonconference wins so that once you get into the Big Ten, and if you don’t have a ton of success, you put yourself in a position to try to get to .500 or better, so you can make the postseason,” Aird said. “I think my philosophy is let’s get really good.”

IU volleyball players’ names decorate the tops of lockers June 19 in Wilkinson Hall. IU will begin its upcoming fall season in the new arena. Alex Deryn Buy Photos
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Over seven new players will be joining the team this season. Aird compared putting the team together to building a Lego set.

He has so many different pieces to mix and match with the newcomers as well as the 10 returning players.

“It’s a strange year because it’s a senior heavy team with eight or nine new players,” Aird said. “My biggest job this year will be how quickly can I get this team to gel?

That job is more difficult than it seems. Due to NCAA rules, Aird isn’t allowed to put on any practices until about two weeks before the season starts.

Aird still sends group texts every day to his team and sends articles to motivate his players. He said he relies heavily on his upperclassmen to take the reins over the summer and make sure the team is ready come practice time.

“I think the locker room is a lot more important than anything a coach can say, and hopefully they take accountability and leadership,” Aird said.

A dry erase board sits on top of a table June 19 in Wilkinson Hall. The IU volleyball team will start its upcoming fall season with a new arena and and locker room. Alex Deryn Buy Photos

Senior Kendall Beerman tore her ACL during the season last year but Aird said she is training over the summer and he hopes to have her back by the time the season starts.

Aside from Beerman’s recovery, the experienced yet youthful team is healthy and will be looking to improve upon its performances a year ago.

IU’s first home conference game will be Oct. 4 against Illinois. In terms of the environment, Aird has ideas to make Wilkinson Hall even more raucous than the U-Gym a year ago.

“There are plenty and none that I’m going to tell you right now,” Aird said.

The possibility of a hype person was brought up in March, but nothing has been made official. Aird said when one idea doesn’t work, he doesn’t care and he’s on the next one.

Just one day after season tickets for volleyball went on sale, the sideline seats were sold out, and the seatback seats were on the verge of selling out.

“It’s really not about winning and losing, and I know that sounds like a cop out, but it’s the truth,” Aird said. “I think we’ve gotta change our identity.”

"Indiana" is written across the volleyball court June 19 in Wilkinson Hall. IU’s volleyball team will begin its fall season with a new arena. Alex Deryn Buy Photos
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The Warriors were down one point with 9.6 seconds left in game six. Stephen Curry had a good look at a 3-point shot to reclaim the lead. All the hope Aird had sitting in his basement rested on the round shoulders of the Spalding ball flying through the air toward the hoop.

Curry’s shot missed. The Raptors won the NBA Championship. Aird could finally relax and celebrate.

Aird had no control over whether or not one of the best 3-point shooters in the NBA was going to hit that crucial shot. But when it comes to game planning and coaching a game, Aird has control. That's why he doesn't get nervous.

Whether it was seeing Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri trade for Kawhi Leonard to win the finals or serving as an assistant coach to Penn State and becoming a two-time NCAA Champion, Aird knows what it takes to win.

IU volleyball Coach Steve Aird coaches during the game against Northwestern Sept. 21, 2018, at the University Gym. IU is going to open the 2019 season Aug. 30 in Wilkinson Hall. Carter Waldron/Indiana Athletics Buy Photos

On the play to get Curry wide open for three, Aird noticed Warriors Coach Steve Kerr took it from Celtics Coach Brad Stevens.

It's what comes with coaching, Aird said. He studies volleyball every day, whether that be watching the U.S. national team on his desktop in his office or traveling internationally to see games, he is taking bits and pieces of what he sees and twists it to integrate into his game plan.

For Aird, success comes back to the reason he isn’t nervous when he coaches volleyball.

“I think the team will be a lot better,” Aird said. “But the conference is really really good. Our nonconference schedule is really tough. We can’t control how good the teams that we’re playing are, I can only control what we’re doing every day and trying to get better.”

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