W hen outside hitter Gia Milana spoke with fellow students about the Maryland volleyball team the spring before her freshman campaign, she encountered indifference.
At that time, in 2016, no one believed the Terps — who haven’t qualified for the NCAA tournament since 2005 — could blossom into a legitimate Big Ten contender. Milana, then the program’s best-ever recruit, said the lack of respect motivated the team to prove its worth.
Under the guidance of coach Steve Aird, Maryland has started this season 12-2, gaining some of the recognition Milana craved. The Terps, who upset then-No. 18 Southern California last week and added a sweep over Indiana on Saturday, matched their 2016 win total a month into the new season.
Maryland’s rise reminds Milana of her time at Romeo High School in Romeo, Michigan, where the volleyball team transformed from a “joke” to the Class A state champion her junior year.
“I live for that,” Milana said. “Taking something that wasn’t much and then putting it on the map.”
A strong marketing campaign has helped Maryland’s on-court success this season garner attention.
Maryland played its past three home contests on Xfinity Center’s main court — where the men’s and women’s basketball teams compete — rather than in Xfinity Pavilion. With the larger capacity of the main court, the Terps increased attendance on a weekend they beat the Trojans and Oklahoma to secure the program’s best start since 2005.
While Maryland filled only a small quadrant of the arena, the exposure drew more than 1,000 people to each match. When Aird first arrived in College Park, the Terps averaged about 400 fans per game.
Recent losses to No. 7 Washington and Ohio State demonstrated the need for additional improvement, but the Terps underlined their progress by receiving votes in the AVCA Coaches Poll for the first time in recent memory.
Aird spent time as a business executive before joining Penn State as the director of operations and later an assistant coach. He brought that marketing background to College Park.
Setter Abigail Bentz didn’t notice volleyball apparel in the on-campus bookstores when she arrived at this university as a freshman, but she said the coach has helped the team gain visibility since taking over.
Last year, Aird created a shirt with “TERPS – vs – EVERYBODY” printed across it in white lettering for the Terps to wear during warm-ups. The custom design received attention on Twitter from SportsCenter host and Maryland alumnus Scott Van Pelt.
“There’s really not one aspect of his business and his program that he doesn’t touch,” Bentz said.
Former volleyball marketing intern Devin Rote, who’s now a marketing assistant at North Carolina State, views Aird as a multidimensional coach.
Rote said the Terps’ marketing staff approached its first meeting with Aird in a conventional manner, attempting to follow an agenda. But the recently hired coach stopped the proceedings and called for silence. Then, he blared rap music from his computer while watching volleyball highlight tapes.
In a later meeting, Aird took notice of the constant techno music playing in between points during a European professional volleyball match. He wanted to bring that atmosphere to Maryland’s home court.
So, Aird introduced to Xfinity Pavilion a DJ who picks from 300 songs to play between points. Milana said the loud home court has provided the team an advantage by increasing energy on the floor and in the stands.
“[Aird] really challenged us to push the boundaries,” Rote said. “What he really brought was a new energy to the program.”
While Maryland posted a 37-60 record during Aird’s first three seasons, its creative marketing strategies grew the fan base.
The Terps often hold contests for supporters to win Under Armour gift cards. Once, they hosted a Drake-themed match geared toward a younger demographic.
Maryland’s average home attendance exploded to 1,539 in 2014. It generated record ticket revenue in Aird’s second campaign.
Back-to-back ranked recruiting classes, as well as a 12-2 start this season, has made it easier to attract fans.
“Any time nationally you bring in some of the better players in the country, people get excited,” Aird said. “We’re going to be really good this year and I think we’ll keep getting better.”
Senior middle blocker Hailey Murray committed to Maryland when the volleyball team lacked recognition. She said there’s been a shift in enthusiasm in recent years, as her classmates went from not knowing where the team played to regularly showing up for games.
While Murray will miss the Terps’ final product due to her impending graduation, Milana hopes to continue shaping a team that’s starting to mirror her upstart high school group.
“We’ve worked so hard to flip the program,” Milana said. “People around here care and people are starting to ask more questions.”
Senior staff writer Daniel Bernstein contributed to this report.