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2014 Michigan volleyball: Position-by-position breakdown

Allison Farrand/Daily
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By Jacob Gase, Daily Sports Writer
Published August 27, 2014

For the first time in several years, the Michigan volleyball team’s depth chart is full of question marks.

Coach Mark Rosen was already facing the challenge of reshaping a young team following the departure of five seniors. Now, a flurry of injuries in preseason practice has further exacerbated the issue.

“Every day, it’s something our coaches sit down and talk about,” Rosen said. “It’s a little bit controlled by injuries right now. We feel like we have more of a depth chart at some positions, but it’s limited because the kids we feel are in a certain place in the depth chart are hurt.”

After a disappointing first-round exit in the 2013 NCAA tournament, the unranked Wolverines find themselves in rebuilding mode. The holes left in the lineup by the graduated seniors are not easy ones to fill — middle blocker Jennifer Cross was Michigan’s all-time blocks leader, and outside hitters Lexi Erwin and Molly Toon combined for nearly 700 kills last season.

The Wolverines will look to fill the void both by expanding the roles of some returning veterans and taking advantage of their young depth — the roster features only one senior and a quartet of incoming freshman.

Beginning the season unranked and with relatively low expectations, Michigan seems content to move forward with a flexible depth chart, giving each young player a chance to find her role while the team works around nagging injuries.

“A lot of them have injuries that are healing fairly quickly,” Rosen said. “None of them are just stagnant right now, but could I put them in a game right now? No. Certainly we’re not going to push anybody’s health, that’s going to be our first priority.”

Just days ahead of the first match, the lineup is still a mystery, even to Rosen. Here is a look at who the Wolverines might turn to at each position.

Middle blocker

Despite Cross’s departure, blocking remains a strength for Michigan, thanks to a pair of returning stars.

Junior Krystalyn Goode led the team with 128 blocks in 2013. After starting in all 32 matches last season, she returns as a veteran leader of the Wolverines’ front line.

6-foot-5 sophomore Abby Cole will move back to her natural position in the middle after starting 22 matches on the right side last season. The tallest member of the roster looks to follow up her successful freshman season, in which she was named to the Big Ten All-Freshman team and posted 259 kills — the most of any returning player.

The two starters should see the bulk of the playing time, which is fortunate for Michigan considering the injuries currently affecting its depth at the position. Incoming freshman Claire Kieffer-Wright of South Pasadena, California, is still healing from a foot fracture, while sophomore Gabbie Bulic is also out with an unspecified injury. The lone option off the bench is redshirt junior co-captain Olivia Reed.

Outside hitter / Right-side hitter

More uncertainty surrounds the options on the outside than anywhere else on the court. The two players likely to get the first chance at the open spots are both juniors with moderate experience. But continuing the common problem for the team, both are also currently injured.

Whenever they are healthy – Rosen hopes at least one will be back Friday in Arkansas — Ally Davis and co-captain Kelly Murphy should see significant time on the outside. With the departures of Erwin and Toon, both will be playing far more expanded roles than they have in the past. Each has found some success with limited playing time — Davis recorded 107 kills in just 20 matches last season, while Murphy similarly picked up 155 kills in 35 matches her freshman season.

Also in the mix on the outside are a trio of incoming freshmen. Katherine Mahlke, a right-side hitter from Downers Grove, Illinois, and Adeja Lambert, of Rockford, Illinois, are top-50 recruits and could immediately seize an opportunity at the injury-depleted position.

The third freshman in contention for playing time is actually playing out of position. Libero and defensive specialist Caroline Knop, a standout from Pasadena, California, has been placed on the outside in practice because of the injuries to Davis and Murphy. According to Rosen, she has adjusted quickly to the new role and he “would not be surprised” if she stays on the outside for now.

Setter

The 2014 Wolverines may be a very young team, but they do have one senior who happens to play one of the most important roles.

Setter and co-captain Lexi Dannemiller is back as the unquestioned on-court leader of the team. Coming off a tour of China with the U.S. Collegiate National team this summer, Dannemiller was named to the preseason All-Big Ten Team for the second consecutive season. She has earned a reputation as one of the best collegiate setters in the country and provides much-needed experience and leadership for a rebuilding team.

Redshirt freshman Cindy Zhou is now in her first active season and figures to see time as a second setter. According to Rosen, she had been playing well enough to be in the mix as depth in the front or outside before she suffered an ankle injury a few days ago.

Junior Carly Warner provides more depth at the position, but with Dannemiller’s proven durability, she is not likely to appear more than she has in previous seasons (just 11 matches in her first two years). She has, however, been tabbed as the starter in Dannemiller’s place for Friday’s match against Stephen F. Austin.

Defense

While struggling to make pieces fit in other areas of the court, Michigan appears to be set with its back line, which boasts both experience and young depth.

Junior Tiffany Morales will likely start at the libero position for the third consecutive year. She spent the summer in Ann Arbor rehabbing after having shoulder surgery in the spring, and Rosen believes she is in better shape than ever. With over 1,000 digs under her belt already, Morales seems poised to maintain her position in the Wolverines’ strong backcourt.

Junior defensive specialist Lindsey Lerg and Caroline Knop are also options defensively. Both were in the libero mix before Knop moved to the outside, and each has played well enough to earn time as an extra defender, similar to the role departed senior Ally Sabol played much of last season.