BLOOMINGTON – When Steve Aird took over as head coach of the Indiana women’s volleyball team more than two years ago, a primary goal was to make the program relevant.
In attempting to recruit top players in the country, Aird sold playing in the Big Ten, even though IU didn’t have a history of success in a league that’s produced five of the last 10 national champions.
This past year, Aird sold a new facility and attendance of more than 1,800 fans per game.
Those factors paid dividends this year, as IU signed a 2020 class ranked 15th nationally, the highest-ranked volleyball recruiting class in school history. The eight-player class includes a pair of Under Armour All-Americans and will infuse size and talent into a team that finished 14-19 last season and 3-17 in the Big Ten.
“Obviously, it’s a pretty brave decision for them to join our program, considering the history of our program and the options they had,” Aird said. “I mean these kids all had big, high-level options to go to really, really good programs that are top-10, top-15 schools, but I think they are wired differently.
“They want to have competitive success. I think they want to not only play in the conference but win in the conference.”
The Under Armor All-Americans in the 2020 class include Leyla Blackwell (a 6-foot-4 middle blocker from San Diego, California) and Savannah Kjolhede (6-3 middle blocker, Colleyville, Texas).
IU also signed the two-time Gatorade National Player of the Year in Nevada, 6-2 outside hitter Tommi Stockham of Las Vegas. Ranked 32nd nationally, Stockham helped lead Bishop Gorman High to back-to-back Nevada state titles.
Rounding out the class are Elle Hillers (6-3 middle blocker, Silverdale, Washington), Morgan Geddes (6-2 outside hitter, Grove City, Ohio), Grae Gosnell (5-11 outside hitter, Mount Pleasant, South Carolina), Britt Soudan (5-7 defensive specialist, Winnetka, Illinois) and Olivia Panepinto (5-9 setter, Crown Point). Panepinto is the only in-state player from a class that features eight players from eight different states.
“We tried to find the right kind of kids for what we were trying to do, and we were lucky to do that, I think,” Aird said. “We’ve had a lot of success nationally now explaining to people we feel we’re going to be a program that’s going to have real success and recruit real kids.”
With five of the eight players 6 feet or taller, IU also is adding more players to match up with the taller frontlines in the Big Ten.
“Size and athleticism really matter,” Aird said. “That’s important. We needed a core of that. We graduated a lot of physical kids that are moving on.”
The impact of the class in the short term could be impacted due to the coronavirus pandemic, with team activities being postponed indefinitely. Aird said the returning players and incoming class have remained upbeat and are trying to make the most of the situation by working out on an individual basis.
“With the pandemic, this is not a good year to have an inexperienced team,” Aird said. “We don’t have a lot of access to them. We’re not going to see them a lot. We might have only a couple of weeks to get going. This would be a great year to have a veteran team where they know what’s going on when they walk into the gym, and you are right back into the system where you know what you are doing.
“That’s a disadvantage. I think the advantage is these kids are really good players, and they are going to be able to figure stuff out. I mean, they know what they are getting into with me. They know what they are getting into with this conference.”
For Aird, who is 30-34 in two seasons at IU, the focus remains ahead. IU did post an upset of No. 15 Kentucky last season before struggling in Big Ten play, but players are developing.
Sophomore outside hitter Breanna Edwards, who had a team-high 361 kills last season, was selected to the 28-player U.S. Women’s Collegiate National Volleyball Team.
In opening $17 million Wilkinson Hall for the 2019 season, IU also posted an average attendance of 1,801 fans, which ranked 15th nationally. It’s a noticeable jump from the 2017 season, when IU averaged 780 fans.
“I’m really fired up about the recruiting class, but to be able to be 15th in the country in attendance I think is a massive step forward,” Aird said.