As Michigan regroups for the fall, a new reality sets in

Sunday, July 19, 2020 - 11:39pm

Michigan volleyball is learning to be flexible after 4 months apart from each other.

Michigan volleyball is learning to be flexible after 4 months apart from each other. Buy this photo
Miles Macklin/Daily

The Michigan volleyball team barely had barely begun its spring season when an ill-fated email landed in Mark Rosen’s inbox on the morning of March 12.

Mark wasn’t sure what to make of the note, which merely specified the date and time of a required call for all University head coaches. When he first read the email, it appeared the biggest problem would be the fact that the call conflicted with his team’s practice. 

And so, while players began trickling into Cliff Keen Arena for what they thought would be a run-of-the-mill Thursday afternoon practice, Mark retreated to his office to join the mandatory call while associate head coach Leisa Rosen — who handles the majority of the team’s training anyway — began practice.

Little did he know, it was the last time he’d leave the gym with any sense of normalcy.

As the call began, Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel didn’t mince words. The Big Ten was suspending all athletic activities, prompting an immediate intervention from Mark.

“My team is practicing right now,” Mark told The Daily. “What should we do?”

Manuel’s response left no room for interpretation:

“As soon as we get off the call, shut it down.”

Moments later, Mark re-entered the gym, taking in his final glimpse of volleyball before the world would be turned on its head. The Wolverines were in the middle of a drill when Leisa made eye contact with Mark, whose facial expression and body language told her everything she needed to know.

The players finished the drill and made their way to the team room, where Mark delivered the news.

“I think (the players) kind of knew,” Mark recalled. “Since I wasn’t in practice, they knew that probably wasn’t a good sign. I just said, ‘Hey, this is what’s going on. This is the situation. We don’t really know a whole lot, but we’re not going to practice until further notice.’ ”

As players filed out, a warranted sentiment of uncertainty hung in the air. Since that moment, the Rosens and Wolverines have yet to reconvene as a team. In his 21 years at the helm of the Wolverines’ volleyball program, Mark has never lived through anything like the last four months.

But now, 130 days later, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. And as Michigan inches closer to its conference-only season, the athletic department’s return-to-sport plan is at the forefront of it all. 

“It’s a pretty specific protocol,” Mark said Thursday. “I’m super proud of our department. We have a few specific people in our department who are in charge of a few certain areas like facilities or medical. I thought they were pretty good before (the pandemic), but they’re rockstars. They are really good at what they do. You see that in whatever profession — when the pressure’s on and it’s a dire situation, that’s when you see who’s really good.”

Mark singled out senior associate athletic director Darryl Conway as the mastermind behind Michigan’s plan to monitor athletes’ exposure, testing and resocialization process. And even though nothing is mandatory until the Wolverines’ formal report day on August 10, many volleyball players have voluntarily returned to Ann Arbor and committed to the athletic department’s guidelines.

But even with a plan in place, the seemingly endless list of wildcards remains daunting.

“That whole process is going about as smooth as it could, but there’ll be a lot of hiccups,” Mark said. “One of the things I’ve learned through this process is that you have to be flexible and you have to understand that things are going to change. They literally change by the minute almost.”

A few weeks ago, Mark lived through an example of just that.

“We were on a call one time with all our coaches and administrators,” Mark recalled. “They mentioned a date and a time at the beginning of the meeting, and by the middle of the meeting that date had changed. I was like, ‘Wait, what happened?’ They said, ‘Oh, yeah, while we’re on this call, things changed.’ That’s what we’ve got to expect. It’ll change really rapidly.”

For now, it’s full steam ahead. As of July 17, just eight of the 635 total student-athletes and staffers in Ann Arbor have tested positive for COVID-19. Yet, even as the Wolverines move forward under strict guidelines and cautious optimism, Mark knows that anything is possible in this new reality.

“We know our plans might get blown up any minute,” Mark said. “We have to be ready for that.”