- Ruby Wallau/Daily
By Alexa Dettelbach, Daily Sports Writer
Published August 13, 2013
Last year the Michigan volleyball team finished with a historic season — highlighted by its first-ever Final Four appearance.
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The Wolverines had 27 wins, tied for the second-most in program history, and ultimately finished ranked No. 5 in the country. They return five starters from that team.
All of that, combined with a deep, experienced bench, catapulted Michigan to a No. 7 preseason ranking in the American Volleyball Coaches Association poll, which came out on Monday. It’s the highest Michigan has been ranked in the preseason poll in program history. But accolades aside, the Wolverines still began fall practice on Saturday with the same expectations and same approach.
“I hope we don’t put a lot of priority on it because it’s not something we can control,” said Michigan coach Mark Rosen. “But it’s nice because I’d much rather be ranked higher than lower.
“It’s great for our program and gives us recognition and it certainly points to people’s respect for what we’ve done and what we did last year, but now we have to go out and earn it. We can’t spend a lot of time thinking about it.”
After last season’s success, expectations will certainly be high in Cliff Keen Arena, but Rosen has a talented squad to work with. His Final Four team returns 13 letter winners and five starters.
“One of the things our team has to understand is that (last year) was a different team,” Rosen said. “Even though we have a lot of the players back, it was a different time and a different team. What we learned from that experience should definitely benefit us. I think our players have confidence and certainly learned a lot from last season, so I think there are benefits from our past experience, but any pressure we see from that is our own fault. We have to control that.”
With every player from last season’s squad returning — except right-side hitter Claire McElheny — there’s no question that the Wolverines have a lot to look forward to on this year’s roster.
The Wolverines return two All-Americans in senior middle blocker Jennifer Cross and senior outside hitter Lexi Erwin, who earned third-team and honorable mention recognitions respectively last season. There’s also junior setter Lexi Dannemiller, who ended last season with 1,622 assists, which gave her the third-most all-time in a season for Michigan.
The Wolverines also have senior outside hitter Molly Toon, and defensive specialists Tiffany Morales and Ally Sabol returning. In addition to all the veterans, Michigan also has three freshmen joining the squad. Highlighted by middle blocker Abby Cole, this year’s freshmen class also adds middle blocker Gabbie Bulic and setter Cindy Zhou. Cole was an Under Armour All-American second-team selection last season as well as the runner-up for Michigan’s Miss Volleyball.
“I’m really excited about all of (the freshmen),” Rosen said. “They’re very confidant, capable and committed. It’s been a really terrific blend. Great personalities, and their work ethic is really good. But they’re young and they have a lot to learn and they have things they need to get better at, but they understand that and the opportunity and the experience to do that.
“I’m excited about all three of them. Cindy, Abby and Gabbie are all going to be players that make great impacts in our program.”
Last year’s team also had the opportunity to go to South America on a 13-day tour of Brazil and Argentina, which included 10 matches across the two countries. The Wolverines went 9-1 in those matches, only giving up a total of eight sets throughout all 10 games. Following the trip, Rosen wrote in his blog that he knows the extra volleyball time will pay off in the fall.
“My first impression was that they did a lot of work over the summer,” Rosen said. “In fall sports, especially, we have to really rely on them doing great work on their own in the summer because we only have three weeks to get ready for a match, so we don’t have a lot of time to get them in shape.
“I think we’re well ahead of where we’ve been in most seasons because of the veterans we have coming back, but also because we had the Brazilian-South America trip over the summer. You can tell they were pretty far along, which is great, but we have to make sure we keep moving from that point.”
This Wolverine team has the luxury of being very deep — a critical asset for the upcoming season.