Similar feel to last year as Michigan welcomes two Big Ten rivals

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By Theo Dubin, Daily Sports Writer
Published October 31, 2013

Halfway through the Big Ten season, the Michigan volleyball team (4-6 Big Ten, 14-7 overall) looks nearly identical to last year’s team. The Wolverines have the same conference record through 10 games, a roster down only one player from the 2012-13 campaign and a patient aura of optimism.

Despite historically high expectations after last year’s Final Four run, there is no sense of urgency in Cliff Keen Arena. What you will find instead are squeaking sneakers, laughing voices and a clear focus on hard work.

Nobody is pressing. The team’s leaders and coaches have internalized the lessons of last season’s success and turned them into a foundation for this team’s progression. The rest of the team feeds off this quiet confidence. They seem to know that success will come from the hard work exerted each practice. Even with a roster rife with talent, Michigan’s greatest strength is its experience, patience and maturity.

The Wolverines draw on these pillars as they head into their biggest home weekend of the season. Friday, they face No. 2 Penn State before Ohio State visits Ann Arbor on Saturday. Michigan dropped road matches to each team earlier in the season.

If there are jitters going into the Penn State game — the Nittany Lions have won nine of the last 10 Big Ten titles and won the national title four consecutive times between 2007 and 2010 — they are well masked.

“It’s the biggest game of the year because every game we’re playing is the biggest game of the year,” said Michigan coach Mark Rosen. “Everybody is good, everybody is important.“

The Wolverines will face a tall task trying stop a deep Penn State roster that includes four All-Americans, including first-team Ariel Scott and Micha Hancock.

“Penn State is very balanced, they are very deep,” Rosen said. “They have a world-class lineup in the sense that they have a lot of players who will potentially be Olympians, just like they have had the last however many years. There isn’t one player we need to stop. We need to stop Penn State.”

Saturday, the Wolverines will look to avenge a 3-1 loss in September to Ohio State. Any possibility for a mental letdown after facing Penn State seems remote because of the added emotion of playing the Buckeyes.

‘Whenever you go into a rivalry game, you have extra energy and emotion because it does mean more,” said senior middle blocker Jennifer Cross. “As a team, we try and treat it the same, but I think we have something to prove because last time we went into Columbus, we didn’t play our best, and we know that. So this time around at our place, we want to take care of our house.”

As the second half of the Big Ten schedule starts, the Wolverines still need to hit their stride. Despite an uneven start to conference play, there is a sense that this team will break through if it continues to work hard and put in quality sets against a deep Big Ten schedule.

“Do we have a breakout in us?” Rosen said. “Absolutely. I think this team is any game away from making a run. We can’t just hope for a breakthrough, we have to create one. The key to that is consistent execution. When we’re executing at our best level, we are really good. And if we can do that, we will win a lot of matches.”