Michigan readies for seventh-consecutive trip to NCAA Tournament

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By Greg Garno, Daily Sports Writer
Published November 27, 2012

For a team that just received its seventh-consecutive selection to the NCAA Tournament, you might think the Michigan volleyball team would be calm and collected upon hearing the announcement that it would be playing Tennessee on Thursday.

But sitting in the home of Mark and Leisa Rosen — the Michigan head coach and assistant coach, respectively— the Wolverines were giddy with excitement to hear their name called in the field of 64 on Sunday.

With seven freshmen on its roster, half of the Rosens’ young team had yet to experience the thrill of being selected, so you can’t blame them when their faces lit up like a child’s on Christmas morning.

But the excitement won’t last long.

Left with just two more days to prepare, Michigan departs for Louisville on Tuesday and will look to its veteran leadership, which doesn’t spend much time relishing the excitement of the NCAA Tournament.

“I’ve been here before,” said fifth-year senior right-side hitter Claire McElheny. “But the freshmen, we saw all their faces and it’s all so new to them. It’s still exciting to me, but I’ve been there. I know what to expect, not from the teams, but the process.”

Added junior middle blocker Jennifer Cross: “(The freshmen) didn’t really know if we got a good draw. A lot of them didn’t even know that we play the first and second round in the same location. So it was one of those cool things where we actually know how it works.”

Following last year’s Sweet 16 appearance where they knocked off a powerhouse in Stanford and ultimately lost to Florida, the Wolverines will take on another SEC team in Tennessee — an unfamiliar opponent.

“I think it’s a fair draw,” Rosen told MGoBlue.com. “It’s certainly not an easy draw. I think it’s going to come down to who plays well over two matches. Because of that I think it sets you up well for the next round where you’re not getting creampuff matches.”

Michigan has a 3-1 all-time record against the Volunteers, with their most recent meeting being a four-set victory for the Wolverines in 2009.

Tennessee concluded the regular season with a 22-7 record, enough for second place in the SEC East division behind Florida.

The Volunteers, however, lost to Missouri and Arkansas earlier in their season — two teams Michigan handled.

But the Wolverines take on a team they haven’t had much time to study. The Volunteers are bigger on paper, which will force Michigan to be quicker off the floor.

Michigan heads to Louisville led by Cross and junior outside hitter Lexi Erwin. The pair was named to the 16-member All-Big Ten team on Tuesday after ranking first and second in kills as well as points.

The Wolverines will rely on their strength of schedule against arguably the strongest conference in the NCAA. The Big Ten featured the No. 1, No. 4 and No. 10 teams in the nation at one point in the season and is still highlighted by Big Ten champion Penn State.

“It definitely gives us more confidence going into the tournament,” McElheny said. “We’ve seen teams like that every weekend and if we had to, figure out how to turn it around against a team that’s putting pressure on you.”

But Michigan will also benefit from its recent winning streak against two rivals on the road. A three-set victory over Michigan State last Wednesday and four-set victory over Ohio State on Friday will prepare the Wolverines for traveling once more.

The Wolverines will face the winner of No. 9 Louisville and Belmont on Friday and can look forward to returning to Louisville for the Final Four should they advance to that stage.

“Going into the postseason I think it gives us a lot of confidence to go on the road,” Rosen said. “But it’s something we don’t really talk much about as a team. I think you have to look at it as just another match, but it is a little different when there is a hostile crowd on the other side. I think we’re ready to go into another environment and put our best game on the floor.”

With seven straight years of experience, Rosen has been well prepared to handle adversity this postseason. He can also count on his veterans to attempt to recreate the magic of last year’s postseason.

For some veterans, though, the experience of the NCAA Tournament and Selection Sunday is just as thrilling as the first, bringing them back to the days of their freshman year.

“I actually think you get more excited the less years you have,” Cross said. “You do cherish it more because you know it’s not endless, so to me, I’m more excited than I ever have been. A lot of schools never get a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament and I’m going to my third.”

But if the Wolverines advance out of Louisville, they’ll be smiling like it’s Christmas morning again.