Early in the first set, Jess Mruzik backpedaled three steps and waited to come forward to spike the ball. The freshman outside hitter’s opportunity for her first kill of her college career was right in front of her. She ran forward, jumped high and swung hard at the ball, trying to drive it through the block, but Purdue’s junior middle blocker Jael Johnson held strong and the ball ended up falling on Michigan’s side of the court.
For Mruzik, making attack errors or being blocked is unfamiliar. Growing up, she was always the best player on the court. She came to Michigan after winning the National Gatorade Player of the Year in her senior year of high school, along with a number of other All-American accolades. Now, she is facing an entirely different level of talent and maturity, and this early play in her college career gave her an indication of the adjustments she would need to make to find success at this level.
Throughout the game, she began to make these adjustments, proving the adaptability of her talent and showing her potential for greatness, even if she needs to adjust to a higher level of gameplay. Rather than continue to try to go through the block, she changed her approach. She started trying to aim a little higher and deflect the ball off the block. She realized that she had found an effective strategy and continued to use it throughout the game.
These adjustments led to 21 kills on 50 attempts, and — while she was not able to prevent a 3-1 loss to the No. 11 Boilermakers — this match was an encouraging sign for her future and the future of the Wolverines. She led the offense alongside junior outside hitter Paige Jones. They both tried to overcome a stifling Purdue’s defense, but could not do so in the loss. Mruzik did her best to help the offense, as she continually moved in from just outside the left side of the net to rise up and find a way to get a kill, whether it was going over, around or through the block.
When she served, she constantly came from the back of the court to get kills. She also helped defensively with seven digs. In the first game of Mruzik’s college career, she was who the Wolverines turned to when they needed to win a point.
“My expectations for her are really really high,” Michigan coach Mark Rosen said. “Because she’s capable. I was really proud of how she came into it and did what she does.”
What makes Mruzik’s play even more impressive is that she did not have the standard preseason run-up to Big Ten play to help her get adjusted to the college level. This was Michigan’s first game of the season, and it came against one of the top teams in the Big Ten. Mruzik and the rest of the team went over a year without playing a match against a real opponent, the longest stretch that many of them have experienced in their lives.
“It was nice to be able to get into the game atmosphere again,” Mruzik said. “It was weird for us to come out and not have played a match for over a year, but it was a good experience, and I’m excited to get back out there and do it all again tomorrow.”
Mruzik faced the difficult combination of this long hiatus, playing in her first college game and facing a talented Purdue squad, but she still found a way to contribute and ultimately lead her team despite the less-than-ideal result. There certainly remains room for improvement, but in her first game in a college uniform, she proved her value to the team right now, as well as her substantial potential for the future.
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