Maryland volleyball outside hitter Gia Milana was lifting weights on Monday when coach Steve Aird entered the workout room and tapped her on the shoulder.
“Hey, you’re Big Ten Freshman of the Week,” Aird said in a level tone. “Congrats.”
Then, the coach walked away.
Milana, who leads Big Ten freshmen with 4.02 kills per set, recorded 20 kills against No. 10 Penn State last Friday. She said it was “really cool” to receive recognition for that performance, but she appreciated the offhand way Aird broke the news.
With four matches left for the Terps (11-17, 3-13 Big Ten), including road contests against Illinois (14-13, 7-9) and Northwestern (8-20, 1-15) this weekend, she doesn’t want to bask in individual feats because Aird and the team’s veterans have fostered a culture where that kind of selfishness is almost nonexistent.
“It was just funny because [Aird] was so nonchalant about [telling me the news],” Milana said. “That’s the reason I love him. To him and me, it’s a really cool honor, but we have so much more to do it’s not even funny. It’s just on to the next thing.”
Milana admitted joining the list of 2016 Big Ten Freshman of the Week winners felt special because she’s become close friends with many of them in the past year.
But she attributed the distinction to setter Taylor Smith, who had 37 assists against the Nittany Lions.
“Those weren’t just my kills,” Milana said. “They were the team’s kills.”
Aird called Milana “one of the top freshmen in the country” because she can find success even when opponents focus on stopping her. However, he agreed “individual awards come because the team does well.”
“It’s kind of like being a wide receiver in football,” Aird explained. “You get all the accolades because you scored the touchdowns, but the linemen have to be good and the quarterback has to be good.”
And while Aird said Milana has met expectations in her much-hyped debut season in College Park, he underlined the need for her to make additional progress going forward.
The freshman’s attacking numbers have been stellar this season, but she’s struggled in the service game, committing a team-high 36 serving errors. One reason for those mistakes is a recommendation Aird made early in the season to protect her hurt shoulder.
The coach told her not to use the jump serve she honed in high school because it put too much stress on her arm. Instead, he asked her to develop a consistent float serve, which she hadn’t tried before and requires less physical exertion.
While adjusting to the new serving style has been difficult for her, Milana said she wants to keep her body healthy so she can play.
“Coach is like, ‘Hit it like a whip. Just get it in the court,'” Milana said. “The difference [between serve types] is speed, and with the float serve I’m not trying to get aces. I’m just trying to keep it in.”
During a road matchup with Purdue on Nov. 2, though, she served into the net with set point in the fourth frame. That mistake allowed the Boilermakers to come back to win the set, 28-26, and take the match, 3-1.
But Sunday against Rutgers, Milana improved. She recorded three service aces and made just two service errors in a 3-0 win.
That positive step came as senior middle blocker Ashlyn MacGregor reached a significant milestone. With a third set rejection against the Scarlet Knights, MacGregor became the third player in program history to notch 500 career blocks.
Aird called the Tarpon Springs, Florida, native an important influence on young players, such as Milana, because she sets an example for how consistent effort in practice leads to long-term gain.
“When you have a whole bunch of young players and not a lot of depth, it’s important that you have a rock,” Aird said. “Someone that you know is going to deliver.”
MacGregor didn’t say anything when the accomplishment was announced at Xfinity Pavilion. As the Terps offered congratulations, Milana remembered, “she just smiled and blushed.”
It’s a humble approach Milana replicated after being named Big Ten Freshman of the Week, and something the whole team has taken to heart. After all, sophomore outside hitter Liz Twilley said “[MacGregor] works so hard and is a great teacher to us younger kids.”
“She’s not the type to gloat,” Twilley added. “So we’ll gloat for her.”