Maryland volleyball coach Steve Aird saw High Point flash onto ESPNU’s bracket board against Purdue and sighed before saying, “That might bump us.”
Aird was right. The Terps were the first team out.
There was silence around the room before Aird walked to the front for a speech, breaking into the stunned silence and tear-filled players’ eyes.
High Point won the Big South regular season, but it lost its conference tournament title game. The Panthers and LSU, another bubble team, each notched just one win over a top-50 team. The Terps notched two top-25 wins, including a sweep over No. 11 Southern California in September.
“We didn’t have any bad losses all year,” Aird said. “I thought that our body of work was great. But, you know, the committee’s human and has a lot of people on it that value different things. And at the end of the day, what I won’t be is someone who bitches and complains about what didn’t happen.”
Aird thought his team’s chances for its first tournament since 2005 were nearly a lock following Maryland’s four-set win over Iowa on Nov. 17. But his confidence waned when No. 16 Purdue lost consecutive matches to unranked Michigan after the Terps upset the Boilermakers on Oct. 29.
Two wins in the Terps’ final regular season week would have virtually assured them a spot in the NCAA tournament regardless of other Big Ten outcomes. But Maryland (18-14) fell to an underperforming Ohio State team Wednesday before dominating Northwestern on Friday.
Also on Friday, Purdue upset No. 10 Michigan State, regaining the form that helped the Boilermakers topple then-No. 5 Minnesota and then-No. 10 Wisconsin in early November.
“If you’re in a selection show and you have to hope you’re in, you know, you didn’t do enough,” said Aird, who served as an assistant coach at Penn State between 2012 and 2014. “I’ve been on the other side of it where you’re a one seed, and you’re pretty sure. You’re worried about the path towards the title. I think for me, what it is is the next step in the process.”
Aird said after Friday’s win over Northwestern his aim was always the NCAA tournament. Aird said his team will not participate in the NIVC, a tournament like basketball’s NIT, which restarts this season.
Maryland recorded its best mark under Aird. The Terps were eligible for the postseason for the first time since 2012, when they finished 17-15 in the ACC. Maryland’s 10-10 conference record that year wasn’t good enough to push it into the tournament.
The Terps capped their Big Ten slate with a 7-13 record, but historically the dominance of the conference offers teams lower in the standings a more favorable view. Purdue made the tournament last season despite finishing 10th in the Big Ten. Maryland finished 10th in the conference this year.
But that mark wasn’t enough for Aird’s squad to sneak in. Still, Maryland loses just two players, middle blocker Hailey Murray and defensive specialist Samantha Higginbothem.
Maryland’s top-three attacking players this year were underclassmen.
“The question will be how hungry are they,” Aird said. “I didn’t take the job at Maryland to be a tournament team. I took the job at Maryland to make a deep run and win the whole damn thing. And if we’re not there yet, that’s fine.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated Sam Burgio is one of the two players Maryland will lose this offseason. Burgio is returning, while Samantha Higginbothem is graduating. This story has been updated.