Maryland volleyball is excited to play top competition at the Pac-12 Challenge

When talking about traveling to Los Angeles to face No. 5 Washington and No. 21 Southern California in the coming days, the Maryland volleyball team kept coming back to a single word: excited.

Coach Steve Aird is excited to compete in a couple of “big-time matches.” Outside hitter Gia Milana — the highest-ranked recruit in program history — is excited to prove she belongs on a court alongside the nation’s best players. Libero Kelsey Wicinski is excited to visit a place she’s never been to before.

The Pac-12 Challenge, which also includes a matchup with Oklahoma (9-1), is Maryland’s toughest test to date, but players are cherishing their trip to the West Coast.

“We shouldn’t be like ‘Oh my gosh they’re so good,'” Milana said. “If we come in with a mindset that we’re excited to compete and try to take these games away from them, we’ll have a lot more fun and be successful.”

Milana is still getting used to the expectations that come with being a highly-touted recruit. She said the pressure has not affected her but acknowledged “college is a lot tougher” than high school competition.

At Romeo High School in Michigan, she could “just hit the ball wherever [she] wanted and get a kill.” Now, she must play with more finesse to avoid more experienced blockers at the net.

Milana, who has been a consistent starter, leads the Terps in kills but ranks sixth in hit percentage. She has also struggled with her serve, amassing a team-high 14 service errors.

“I’ve had to work a lot harder,” Milana said. “I’ve had to find a lot more ways to get kills … had to be a better passer and play better defense.”

Still, Wicinski — a sophomore starter — said Milana and Maryland’s other newcomers have adjusted well to college play. She added that their enthusiasm will help the Terps (7-2) against Washington, Southern California and Oklahoma this week.

“They’re freshmen and they always have a ton of energy,” Wicinski said. “Everything is new to them so it’s always really fun to just get that extra boost.”

Milana was even excited about the Terps’ cross-country flight Wednesday morning. She said the long trip will “get us really hyped up to play.”

The outside hitter hopes to channel that energy on the court to demonstrate she can handle difficult matchups.

“It’ll be really exciting not only for me but for the team to see where we stack up against these other really good teams,” Milana said. “It’s cool just to see how I compare to the other girls. Can I play defense? Can I get kills against these girls?”

Aird was realistic about Maryland’s chances of staging an upset this week. He said his main objective was to give his young players experience in a tough environment.

At some point, Aird hopes the program gets to the point where it expects to win these matches.

“I really like big-time matches,” Aird said. “I’ve been lucky to be part of some huge ones over my career. The bigger the match and the better the team, the more excited I get.”

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