Stacked Big Ten presents a tough task for young volleyball squad

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By Max Bultman, Daily Sports Writer
Published August 27, 2014

Even though its championship game will be held in Oklahoma City, the road to NCAA volleyball glory runs through the Midwest.

The Big Ten has been — and this year will remain — the sport’s dominant conference, led by defending NCAA Champion Penn State and followed closely by Wisconsin, a Final Four team a year ago.

Michigan has consistently played a role in the national picture, qualifying for eight straight NCAA tournaments, but it has often been buried in the loaded Big Ten standings.

This year, the Wolverines will try and stay afloat in the daunting conference, but in order to succeed, they’ll need young players to step up early. After losing two All-Americans in Lexi Erwin and Jennifer Cross and arguably the team’s best athlete in Molly Toon, Michigan’s schedule will do no favors to the acclimation process of the nation’s No. 7 recruiting class, led by 2013 Under Armour All-American Claire Kieffer-Wright.

“They’re going to get some eye-opening experiences this weekend,” said Michigan coach Mark Rosen. “But they’re also very good athletes, very competitive and very smart. They’ll figure it very quickly. You know, they better, because bottom line is it’s coming fast.”

The Wolverines will play three unranked teams — Stephen F. Austin, Tennessee State and Arkansas — at the Arkansas Invitational Aug. 29 and 30 but host No. 21 Duke and No. 20 North Carolina the following weekend.

READ: Wolverines begin season in Arkansas | Position-by-position breakdown

A home crowd at Cliff Keen Arena could be enough to tilt what could be two very close matchups in Michigan’s favor. Should the Wolverines falter, though, the Blue Devils and Tar Heels are both capable of making them pay.

And that’s just the way this Michigan team likes it.

“They don’t want to go play somebody they’re going to just go beat up on,” Rosen said. “They’d rather go play somebody really good and lose. They won’t tell you that at the time — they’ll be pissed off and frustrated that they lost — but they’d much rather have that adrenaline rush, that excitement, because that’s the kind of people they are.”

Fourteen of the 30 games on the Wolverines’ schedule are against ranked opponents, and another is against Oregon, the team receiving the 26th-most votes in the preseason poll.

But while the non-conference schedule features plenty of power, it won’t compare to league play, where Michigan is due to face Wisconsin and Penn State twice each.

Although they did receive some votes, the Wolverines are not ranked to start the year.

But after playing a schedule like theirs, its hard to imagine them being intimidated once the growing pains have passed.

“(In the NCAA tournament) two years ago when we played at Louisville, we had a five-set brawl with Tennessee and Louisville had a pretty easy match against Belmont,” Rosen said. “(Louisville’s) reporter asked me, ‘How are you guys going to be ready to come back and play after playing five sets against Tennessee?’ And I just looked at him and said, ‘We do it every day. We do it every weekend. It’s the Big Ten.’ ”

Playing Big Ten volleyball is a punishing routine. Teams get beat up on Friday and come back for more on Saturday. If Michigan is to get through that grind, it’ll need big contributions from senior setter Lexi Dannemiller.

Dannemiller was voted preseason All-Big Ten and will be the Wolverines’ unquestioned floor general to start the year. Throw in blockers Abby Cole and Kristalyn Goode to buoy the middle, and this year’s team has potential to be a defensive force.

But the wear and tear from going through a conference slate like Michigan’s will demand a deep team, so breakout years from junior outside-hitters Kelly Murphy and Ally Davis would provide a much-needed boost offensively.

Ultimately, the Wolverines are unlikely to crack the top five of their loaded conference in the regular season. But by constantly measuring themselves against the nation's toughest teams, a deep postseason run cannot be ruled out.

After all, as Rosen explained, it can’t be any harder than what Michigan will have already faced.

“Somebody else might have a little bit easier route to the Big Ten championship,” Rosen said. “But we don’t have any less desire to get there.”