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Through mental toughness, McElheny developed into an offensive asset for the Wolverines

By Alex Bondy, Daily Sports Writer
Published November 20, 2011

Redshirt junior Claire McElheny has been growing as an essential part of the Michigan volleyball team's offense. McElheny recorded 16 kills during the Wolverines' 3-2 win on Friday over Northwestern and nine kills in Saturday's 3-1 loss against No. 7 Illinois.

According to Michigan volleyball coach Mark Rosen, McElheny is a huge success story. She started slowly, redshirting her freshman year due to a knee injury. Since her recovery, McElheny has been dedicated to developing herself into the Wolverines’ starting right-side hitter.

“It has been cool to see (her develop),” Rosen said. “She came as a freshman and she really wasn’t even able to make much of an impact in practice. She had some knee issues coming out of high school. By her sophomore year she was starting to get pain free and starting to show us some signs. Then these past two years she has really excelled into a great player.”

McElheny showed the player Rosen spoke of as an offensive force in the Wolverines’ win against the Wildcats. She has been perfecting her line shot to make it her own and particularly beneficial for Michigan.

“(Freshman setter) Lexi (Dannemiller) and I connected with a lot of balls (in the game against Northwestern),” McElheny said. “For the first three games they did not gang up on us at all, that was just what was open.”

Below McElheny’s modest speech is a player that was making kills when the Wolverines needed it most. Many of her kills came when Michigan was struggling to gain dominance over the Wildcats. McElheny scored on a line shot in game two with the score tied 21-21, and in game three when the Wolverines were attempting to close out the game at 23-21.

The use of the tandem hit — where the setter can quickly set the middle hitter or one of the outside hitters at a slower pace right over the middle hitter — placed McElheny as the second hitter. This was especially successful. The Wolverines received a point nearly every time McElheny was set the ball in this play.

Against Northwestern, McElheny was the shining star of the offense against a team that could not find a way to block her. Against No. 7 Illinois, McElheny was facing a very different beast.

“(The game against Illinois) was tough because she had a really big matchup," said Rosen. "She was matched up with their biggest outside most of the match. (Fighting Illini Michelle) Bartsch did a really good job limiting what she could do, but that is not on Claire, that’s just a bad matchup.”

Despite playing against a 6-foot-3 senior on an Illinois team that was previously ranked No. 1 in the nation, McElheny held her ground and tallied nine kills and a solo block in Michigan’s 3-1 loss. Rosen attributes McElheny's steady play to her mental toughness, calling her one of his most composed players.

“She is fearless,” said Rosen. “She makes mistakes, but she’s going to come right back the next play she’s not going to hang her head, she’s not going to feel sorry for herself, she’s not going to look for anybody else to prop her up.

"She’s going to come right back in and take the same swing on the next play. But I think that is one of the things that has made her excel.”

This refusal to step down in the face of a tough opponent was seen during a point in the Illinois match. McElheny was set up twice to make attacks that did not end in kills due to the tough Fighting Illini defense. She was then given a third set, on which she made a kill. And again when the Wolverines were down 12-8 after McElheny was solo blocked, she quickly ended the next point with a kill through the block.

McElheny’s ability to grow as a player through an injury, with confidence and drive has allowed her to develop into a player who Rosen said “put the team on her back” against Northwestern.