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Behind the scenes, Indiana volleyball developing into what could be ‘the best team’ of Aird era

Coming off a very challenging year of change, Indiana volleyball head coach Steve Aird and his staff hope the return of fans and a fierce roster will restore the energy in Wilkinson Hall that’s been missing for 18 months.

This time last year, not only did the team miss out on summer training, but their preseason and preseason matches were lost in the mix as well. Pandemic aside, the 2020 roster was very young, one of the youngest teams in the country, with roughly four or five freshman as starters. Entering the 2021 season, Aird intends to reinvent what Indiana volleyball means, along with the team’s status in the Big Ten.

“Going into this year, we’ve added some veteran kids who have really made the gym look and sound a little bit different,” Aird said Tuesday evening. “We feel like we’ve got a very competitive group that I think will surprise some people this year.”

With preseason camp only lasting approximately 10 to 12 days, the seven newcomers and returning players have blown all of Aird’s expectations away, following the outstanding leadership and drive in the short time of two weeks.

“There’s going to be a lot of new bodies in the mix, a lot of new people to get to know,” Aird said. “…But the product right now, I can safely say, it’s the best team I’ve had since I’ve been here.”

It had been 18 months since the team played in front of a crowd, and the countdown to this past Friday’s scrimmage had been long awaited. In the 18 months since fans filled Wilkinson Hall, it’s obvious that their enthusiasm has been building, as the substantial turnout and passion displayed filled an empty void in the arena.

“I thought it was really important to get the new players and the team in the jerseys. You want them to get the jitters and the feeling of being nervous,” Aird said. “We wanted to interact with the crowd as much as we could.”

While keen Under Armour All-American transfer Paula Cerame is no stranger to competition, as she spent time as the starting libero at The University of Florida and made it to the NCAA Tournament last year in Omaha, this will be her on-court debut as a Hoosier. As a defensive specialist, Cerame is one of the few new players who will be making immense impacts this season.

“Paula obviously has a great background, she’s a fantastic player, great family, has experience, she’s fearless, hammers a serve, and has a great feel for the game,” Aird said. “I think Paula is going to be instrumental and that’s a position we’re real deep at. We’ve got three or four kids who could all end up being the libero, and Paula is certainly in that mix.”

Elite opposite Kari Zumach, on the other hand, is quite acquainted with being a Hoosier athlete, but has never played a full regular season. While she did not have many opportunities to perform on the court as an underclassman, the experience she garnered throughout the COVID-19 season will make her one of the outstanding upperclassman to look out for.

“We go from being really, really young during the COVID-19 season, to being a team that’s going to start four or five upperclassmen and kids who have experience,” Aird said. “The kids who are all in state have played in high level forever. Mady Saris, our Canadian kid, is going to be well ahead of what people might expect. She’s a kid who has been with the national team in Canada, and she’s tough as nails.”

It’s no shock that the conference is going to test the limits of some teams this year. Just this weekend, Indiana travels to Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis to face multiple teams with winning records. First, the Hoosiers will face UIC, who was 14-3 last year, and then Bowling Green, who was 22-2. Obviously, it’s a different challenge playing on the road the first three weeks against some really good teams from near and far, but after this weekend, Aird hopes to learn a lot about what the rest of this season will look like.

“It’s not that it’s another building year, but the league is so deep and so good, we just want to be competitive and be better than we were the year before,” Aird said. “Other than our staff and our team, I don’t think anyone in the country has seen what we look like, and it’s really not where you start, it’s where you finish.”

Two years ago, IU ranked in the nation’s top 15 in home attendance, and Aird’s goal is to build it back there…and better, awaiting their return to home. Indiana is prepared to keep growing and developing, and hopefully put on a good show for all of Hoosier Nation.

“There’s a lot of positive energy around campus right now, and I think we’re a heck of a lot better than people think,” Aird said. “…The student section won’t let me down, I just know them too well and those guys work really hard, so I think it’s going to be a really fun night.”

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