By Eric Myers
As an assistant coach at Penn State, Steve Aird recruited the Washington D.C., Maryland and Virginia areas, trying to bring some of the DMV’s top players to State College, Pennsylvania.
Since becoming the head coach at Maryland, Aird has now been tasked with fending off some of those same elite programs for recruits that are from the surrounding areas of College Park.
Realizing the importance of keeping the top area players at home, Aird made a concerted effort to become connected with the prep volleyball programs in the area. The fourth-year Maryland head coach hosted clinics and camps in the area, in an effort to build the sport of volleyball in the area. The effort that Aird has put in since arriving at Maryland has paid off specifically with one local club volleyball program.
The Metro Volleyball Club has become a pipeline for Aird and his staff since arriving in College Park. Of the six players from the area on this year’s roster, five players came from that program (Hailey Murray, Samantha Higginbothem, Liz Twilley, Neil Drummey and Erika Pritchard).
“That club has been good for a very long time,” Aird said. “But I think they’re going to another level now with the grassroots programs, and that was a big part of my plan when I took the job here. It’s highly important [to recruit this area well], I want the best player in the region every year.”
Aird was able to land one of the premier players in the area in his 2017 recruiting class, in Pritchard. The Middletown native, who was ranked the No. 29 recruit in the nation by PrepVolleyball, committed to Maryland over Kentucky, Auburn and Virginia, among other programs.
Pritchard began attending Maryland volleyball games around the beginning of high school, and felt a strong pull to the local university and representing her state school. She decided to come to Maryland because of the vision that Aird had for the program’s future, the proximity to home, and the opportunity to play in the heralded Big Ten volleyball conference.
“We’re really excited to have [top players in the area],” Pritchard said. “It should bring a lot to the table, and it’s going to improve our team a lot.”
Rainelle Jones, a 6-foot-3 middle blocker from Oxen Hill, Maryland, signed with Maryland during the early signing period for high school prospects. Jones adds yet another player from the Metro Volleyball Club to the roster and will likely play a key role in replacing Murray’s production, who will graduate after this season.
Jones is the daughter of former Maryland basketball player Thomas Jones, who played for the Terrapins from 1984 to 1987. Her mother, Michelle, played basketball at the University of Winnipeg and the Canadian National Team. Both of her parents would go on to play professionally.
“[Rainelle’s] athletically just fairly superior,” Aird said of Maryland’s newest signee, who can soar to reach 10-foot-8 in the air. “A lot of those kids, at times, when they’re so athletically gifted, they tend not to work as hard or grind because it comes easy to them. And she’s almost the opposite, her work ethic is what really separates her.”
The No. 32 prospect in her recruiting class, according to PrepVolleyball, Jones was named as a 2016 All-Met selection by the Washington Post. She has also helped her travel team qualify for nationals two consecutive years, while earning opportunities to compete on teams and in camps for Team USA.
Jones will join a Maryland team that will lose Higginbothem and Murray to graduation, but will return the rest of the roster. Middle blocker Katie Myers, who has been sidelined with a torn meniscus since September, also projects to return for the Terrapins. An additional year also gives Aird’s two consecutive ranked recruiting classes from 2016 and 2017 another offseason to improve as players.
“This is where we’re going to start to make the real charge,” Aird said. “I think we’re right on track for what my vision was… every single year, I think we’re going to continue to get better and that’s the goal of the program.”