The rest of the NCAA is gunning for the Wolverines, and they love it

Said Alsalah/Daily
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Daily Sports Writer
Published September 17, 2009

It was the end of May, and Michigan volleyball coach Mark Rosen gathered his team outside of its small bed and breakfast in the beach town of Búzios, Brazil. The Wolverines had spent the week playing the best in Brazilian volleyball, including the Brazilian Junior National Team based out of Saquerema.

It was now dusk, and the Wolverines sat around the pool as their focus turned to the forthcoming year. Michigan returned all but two players, including second-team All-American setter Lexi Zimmerman and All-Big Ten freshman hitter Alex Hunt.

“I think at that point, this team really started setting high expectations,” Rosen said. “It was truly about what we saw in our team and what we felt we were capable of doing. It wasn’t about what everyone else saw in us.”

“This team wants to take this program to the next level,” senior captain Megan Bower said.

And the Wolverines (10-0) are certainly on that path.

Michigan started the season ranked 16th, its highest preseason ranking in program history after back-to-back trips to the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16.

With higher national expectations, Michigan’s season opener was the ultimate litmus test for the upcoming season – a rematch with the Nebraska which ended the Wolverines’ season in three straight sets last December.

“Going into the match against Nebraska, we knew from the beginning by how we prepared and how we played from point one that we had a chance to beat this team,” Zimmerman said.

Once again, the match only lasted three sets, but this time, a different team left the court victorious, and it rocked the college volleyball landscape.

“The Nebraska game shined a big spotlight on us,” Rosen said. “The way we won, on national TV and everyone watching. You could even hear it in the announcer’s voice that they thought Nebraska was going to come back. But we just kept fighting. And then in the third game, we completely dominated.”

Bower knew that the third set was an important moment in the Wolverines short season, saying it “broke a barrier” of being hesitant toward embracing high expectations.

“Walking away from the win, we realized how good this team could be,” Bower said. “We can beat good teams, and we can beat up on top-5 caliber teams. We could expect more out of ourselves now.”

Zimmerman said that last year's seniors Beth Karpiak and Kerry Hance, who played their last collegiate match in the loss to Nebraska, called her to congratulate her on the momentous win.

To receive those calls from players who tried to elevate the caliber of Michigan volleyball for so long showed Zimmerman that people truly “see where this program is going” – the right direction.

A win on that stage notified the nation that Michigan volleyball posed a legitimate threat. And now, the Wolverines have a target on their back.

“Teams are really hungry to play a team like (us),” Rosen said. “We have something that they want. And I’ve seen it this season, because these teams come out and play like they have nothing to lose when they come to play us.”

The Wolverines are now ranked sixth, the highest in school history, which makes them the second-highest ranked Big Ten school prior to the conference season, behind budding rival Penn State. The Nittany Lions currently sit atop the American Volleyball Coaches Association rankings.

And it’s no secret that Michigan has circled October 16th on the calendar. Penn State comes to Cliff Keen Arena having not allowed the Wolverines to steal a set all last season. But the back-to-back National Champions didn’t lose many sets last season.

“Whenever we’re in practice, we’re saying things like ‘that’s not good enough to beat Penn State,’ " Zimmerman said. “We understand where we need to be for that, and I don’t think we’re even there yet.”

With high potential comes high expectations, but when it comes to having a target on their back, the Wolverines wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Everybody really wants to beat us,” Bower said. “We looked at it as an opportunity instead of a burden. We want to see everyone’s best game, so we can beat them at their best.”