BY ANDY REID
Published December 1, 2006
The Michigan volleyball team has been fighting an uphill battle throughout the 2006 season, and it won't have any opportunity to rest anytime soon.
Last weekend, the Wolverines finished one of the most brutal regular-season schedules in the nation only to be placed in one of the NCAA Tournament's toughest sub-regional brackets.
Michigan will kick off its Tournament run against Cal Poly, the host of the sub-regional, today at 11 p.m. at Mott Gym in San Luis Obispo, Calif.
Very few teams envy the level of competition the Wolverines have faced this year, with eight of Michigan's opponents currently in or receiving votes for the top 25.
Six of these teams are in the Big Ten, which means the Wolverines had to play them twice.
But being so battle-tested might give Michigan an advantage over its tournament opponents.
"This (sub-regional) is one of the toughest three in the whole tournament," Michigan coach Mark Rosen said. "We've seen this level of competition week-in and week-out, though. None of these teams really scare us, but at the same time we know they're very good."
If Michigan makes it past Cal Poly (13-1 Big West, 22-5 overall), it will square off tomorrow night at 10 p.m. EST against the winner of the Louisiana State-California game.
Cal Poly and Michigan played three common opponents in the regular season - Minnesota, Pacific and UC Irvine. The Wolverines beat Pacific and UC Irvine while splitting their series against Minnesota. Cal Poly swept Pacific in its series, split with UC Irvine and dropped its match with Minnesota.
Second-year coach Jon Stevenson has revitalized Cal Poly, which is just two years removed from posting a five-win season. Stevenson has led his Mustangs to the Big West conference title and the team's first NCAA Tournament berth since 2002. Cal Poly has won 15 of its last 16 matches this season.
Despite their opponents' recent success, the Wolverines believe they have a good matchup. Michigan, registering almost 17 kills per game, is the more aggressive of the two teams, but the Mustangs have a slightly higher hitting percentage.
Rosen, who is 4-1 at Michigan in the opening round of the Tournament, emphasized that the Wolverines (8-12 Big Ten, 21-12 overall) have more experience against higher-level competition.
More familiarity with Tournament teams - they played 14 matches against teams in the field of 64 - is also a bonus for the Wolverines, but their offensive star, junior Katie Bruzdzinski, is the true key to success.
Last weekend, Michigan State was the first team this year to bottle up the powerful outside hitter effectively. The Michigan offense struggled to get into rhythm without her presence.
It could be a tough weekend for the Wolverines if Bruzdzinski - who was awarded first-team All Big Ten honors this week - is heavily guarded in the tournament.
"Pound-for-pound, I think she is the best player in the Big Ten," said Purdue coach Dave Shondell.On Nov. 10, Bruzdzinski tallied 24 kills to lead Michigan's upset of the then 16th-ranked Boilermakers.
"Cal Poly will be prepared to play Michigan, but they won't see many players as good as her," Shondell said.
With Bruzdzinski and her teammates getting a shot to play on the national stage for the first time since her freshman season, expect the Wolverines to be ready for the challenges that face them.