The Michigan volleyball team and the rest of the Big Ten are set to kick off their conference-only season on the weekend of Jan. 22.

The team has been practicing all fall in accordance with both University and state-level COVID-19 regulations. Additionally, the Wolverines were supposed to have an intrasquad scrimmage on Nov. 21, before Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s recent executive order prevented it. The team is set to resume officially-ordained preparations on Jan. 4.

A myriad of uncertainty looms above the heads of the Wolverines and head coach Mark Rosen, however one thing remains certain, at least for the time being: There will be a volleyball season this coming winter. For now, Rosen remains locked in on business as usual as best he can, and creating an environment that fosters competition and prepares his team for the road ahead.

This season, of course, will be nothing short of extraordinary. The schedule has been constructed much like those of baseball or hockey in that each date on the calendar will be more like a series. Teams will face off twice in a span of two days or nights, back to back. These will be all conference matches, and Rosen expressed excitement for the storylines and drama the schedule could create.

“Playing the same team back to back is a very different experience, but it’s able to be very fun,” Rosen said. “You play somebody on a Friday night, win or lose, there’s going to be some adjustments made.”

Rosen said that there will likely be a lot of very exciting second night matches as the Big Ten is a considerably strong and volatile cradle of teams. This format may lend itself to a more even playing field as players will have an easier time acclimating to their opponents’ style of play. This past fall, the SEC and Big 12 both have used a similar format for conference play.

And while Rosen emphasized the importance of beating rivals like Michigan State and Ohio State, his overarching outlook on the season’s game plan does not center around any one matchup. The Big Ten sent seven teams to the 2019 NCAA Volleyball Tournament, a group which included Rosen’s Wolverines, as well as Wisconsin, who eventually reached the National Championship.

Rosen recently said that he was nervous about the team’s development without any sort of outlet for competition outside of the ordained intra-squad play. To combat this, Rosen and the coaching staff put together a team-wide competition wherein individual players were scored based on how they performed on a rotation of different teams in a series of six different matches. Players were awarded with points for performing well and winning games on the different teams. In this competition, Rosen said that each position group would often end up competing against each other, creating pressure to get better.

“It created pressure to compete,” Rosen said. “It’s not as fun or engaging as playing against an outside opponent, but we had to create something. You train for four months and not ever compete, it gets a little dry.”

The competitions presented the coaching staff with opportunities to see who on the team would step up.

In terms of standouts from this unorthodox preseason, Rosen and his staff saw a lot of players step up and provide insight into what this season would look like. According to Rosen, junior outside hitter Paige Jones played well and proved that her veteran status will continue to anchor the team. The team’s only senior, middle blocker Kiara Shannon, finished third in the team-wide competition and performed well, solidifying her leadership and veteran post.

Aside from Jones and other returning players, multiple newcomers stepped up and shone light on the Wolverines’ promising future. Specifically, incoming freshman and reigning Gatorade National Volleyball Player of the year Jess Mruzik impressed the coaching staff and finished second in the competition.

“That was great to see as a young freshman,” Rosen said.

Redshirt freshman libero Hannah Grant stood out as well, eventually winning the whole competition. Grant transferred from Michigan State this year, installing herself in an impressive class of newcomers that hopes to contribute for Michigan for years to come.

In terms of scheme, the Wolverines will use their young core to build around strength at the service line. Michigan has lost offensive depth in the past year, necessitating development in that regard.

“The tempo and rhythm of our offense is really reliant on setters,” Rosen said. “I think the offense is the biggest part because we’re just so young in that setter position. It’s going to continue to be a work in progress.”

Beyond everything that happens on the court, this season will be unlike any other that Rosen or any player has experienced. So for now, Rosen is taking a short-term approach.

“We’ve got to get better every week,” Rosen said. “We have to make sure we’re working hard to get better at the things we need to get better at, and let the wins and losses take care of themselves.”