New-look volleyball begins 2014 season in Arkansas

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By Zach Shaw, Daily Sports Writer
Published August 27, 2014

This isn’t the volleyball team your older siblings watched.

Less than two years removed from the team’s first-ever Final Four appearance, Michigan enters the season humbled, unranked and most of all, younger.

A third of last year’s team, including former All-Americans Lexi Erwin and Jennifer Cross, have graduated. Now the Wolverines are counting on energy, athleticism and competitive practices to navigate the team to a championship this season, with their first test coming Friday at the Arkansas Invitational.

“It’s just a part of the process,” said Michigan coach Mark Rosen. “Losing seniors happens every year for everyone, and you just have to hope that some of the younger players are ready to step up. We are a younger team this year, but so far the energy and excitement about competing in practice and the season has been fun to watch.”

This time last season, expectations were higher than ever at Cliff Keen Arena. But Michigan, which opened the year ranked No. 7, finished 18-14, including 8-12 in conference play. A first-round loss to LSU in the NCAA tournament ended any last-ditch aspirations at a return to the Final Four.

This year, the bar has been lowered. For the first time since 2008, the team will enter the season unranked. Additionally, a schedule featuring 14 matches out of 30 against ranked opponents could prove daunting for a team low on high-pressure experience.

But to Rosen, that sounds pleasantly familiar. The last time the Wolverines sported a junior-heavy team with only one senior was the 2012 team that proved to be the best season in school history. Repeating success, however, is a process — and a long one at that.

“We have a growth mindset right now,” Rosen said. “We can’t get too wrapped up in where we’re at right now, we have to keep developing and improving to a bigger picture down the road and make sure we try to improve every day. If we can do that for the entire season, I don’t know where we’ll be, but it’ll be somewhere good.”

In addition to embracing the underdog mentality, the younger group has also thrived on a wide-open lineup. Gone are the days of established starters with only backup spots in play. Every spot is up for grabs, which has created a new energy at practice.

“It’s been a good thing,” said sophomore middle blocker Abby Cole. “Practice has become very competitive; everyone’s going hard because we’re all fighting for spots. Despite that, I think people are really embracing whatever role they’re given, knowing that at any point they could be counted on to come through for the team.”

Despite the losses from last season, Michigan still brings a number of players with plenty of experience. Setter Lexi Danemiller — the lone senior and a preseason All-Big Ten honoree — will operate the offense as a fourth-year starter. Junior outside hitters Ally Davis and Kelly Murphy bring a combined 82 games of experience to the attack.

On defense, junior Krystalyn Goode, Cole and Tiffany Morales all return after starting last season. Goode and Cole bring formidable size to the middle blocker positions, while Morales, a junior libero, appears poised to guide the backcourt for the third straight year.

“This team has a lot of athleticism,” Rosen said. “The size and experience might not be what it was in years past, but we’re going to be able to run a fast offense based on the athletes we have. ... Our athleticism and ball-control will keep us in a lot of games, but we’re going to need both every time we play.”

The new-look Wolverines will put an off-season’s worth of filling shoes to the test Friday, when they battle Stephen F. Austin before matches against Tennessee State and Arkansas on Saturday.

“I don’t know if you ever feel ready (for the season opener),” Rosen said. “But I know we’re ready play somebody else that isn’t ourselves. It’s hard to keep playing the same players and the same system all the time, so they’re chomping at the bit ready to play a different uniform and compete.”