By: Eric Myers
Middle blocker Hailey Murray is one of just two seniors on the Maryland volleyball team. She was a member of head coach Steve Aird’s first recruiting class at Maryland, a recruiting class that would begin a new direction for the program. As the program has been shaped by Aird, Murray has been around for the transformation.
When Aird decided to leave Penn State, where he won two national championships as an assistant coach, he was taking on a challenge in College Park. The Terps haven’t made an NCAA tournament appearance since 2005, they struggled to recruit elite players and were about to begin play in the Big Ten conference — which featured perennial powerhouse programs.
Upon taking the job, Aird decided that the rebuild would take place “through the draft,” opting to lean on recruiting at the high school level rather than bringing in transfers for a quick fix. One of his first recruits, Hailey Murray, committed to Maryland under the previous coaching staff and decided to reopen her recruitment after the coaching change. Aird, using his passion and vision for the program, made sure that Maryland retained the Washington, D.C. product.
“[Coach Aird] was intent on building a championship program,” Murray said of Aird’s message to her in the recruiting process.
Murray was an immediate difference maker for Maryland, as she started 31 matches and played in every set as a freshman. She led the team in blocks, with 117 on the season, and was third on the team in kills. The team, however, struggled record-wise in the first year under Aird, going 10-21 and 3-17 in conference play.
In year two for Aird and Murray, the Terps took a step forward. Murray again started every match for the team, which improved its record to 15-19, 5-15 against conference opponents, and upset the 12th-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes at home in straight sets. The program was also gaining an increase in fan support, as Aird emphasized making the Xfinity Center Pavilion a party atmosphere, with a DJ, fan engagement and contests between sets. Maryland set a new record attendance of 1,752 for the Pavilion in a match against Penn State.
In his third year, Aird’s vision of success in recruiting was coming to fruition, as he had the No. 16 class in the country, according to Prep Volleyball, coming to College Park. Maryland’s young roster was exposed to the level of play in college, and while its talent had improved, its record was 12-20, 4-16 against the Big Ten.
Now in fourth year of the Steve Aird era, Murray and the program welcomed their highest rated recruiting class in their history, and started the season by going 11-0, including an upset victory over No. 18 USC, before a loss to No. 7 Washington. With a certain buzz surrounding the team, Murray has seen a drastic change in student interest around campus.
“When I first got here, kids didn’t know what the volleyball team was, where we played, or anything like that,” Murray said. “Now, I can go around campus and say ‘hey, volleyball’s got a game tonight’ and kids will be like ‘oh yeah, I’ll try to come to that.’ That just shows what coach has been doing in terms of publicity and getting our message out there.”
As a senior on this young team, Murray has the experience that the 12 underclassmen on this team lack. She has seen the ups and downs of the program, knows the challenges of Big Ten volleyball, has experienced the rigors of being a student-athlete in college and has the on-court presence of a veteran player.
The poise was especially present when Maryland took on Washington, the marquee matchup of Maryland’s nonconference schedule. Unfazed by the pressures of playing an upper echelon team, Murray shined against the Huskies. She recorded seven kills on a .778 attacking percentage, along with three blocks and one service ace.
The parallel between the new era of Maryland volleyball and Murray has been evident and has had a similar upward trajectory. For the program, top-ranked recruits are committing to Maryland, fans are taking notice and the on-court product has developed into something that Aird envisioned in 2014.
For Murray, she has refined her skills on the court, become a leader on and off the court and has become a mature student-athlete over her four years.
“Absolutely amazing [growth],” associate head coach Adam Hughes said. “Not just on the court, but off the court as well. [She’s] somebody that when she’s done here, I’ll be very proud of. It’s now showcasing how she’s taking these youngsters under her wing.”
Seeing the strides made by the program has made Murray proud to be an integral part of the turnaround. She has started every match in her Maryland career, and has seen Maryland go from a team trying to find its footing in the Big Ten, to a team gaining attention as an up-and-coming team loaded with talent and potential.
“It’s one thing to go to a school that’s already established,” she said. “It’s another sense of fulfillment to know that you built it yourself, and I think that’s something I’ve really gotten to do. I’ve gotten to see it from the beginning, on. So I have a great sense of pride in everything we do.”