Three players from the 2019 Michigan volleyball roster were invited to the USA College National Team tryouts. In the fall, they accounted for a combined 56.8 percent of the Wolverines’ kills, 48.4 percent of their blocks and 44.6 percent of their serving aces.
Another key fact about them: All three are underclassmen.
Sophomore outside hitter Paige Jones is the oldest of the three, being invited after a season where she topped the team with 463 kills. Jones’ attack power slotted her as the Wolverines’ top offensive weapon and secured her a unanimous selection to the All-Big Ten First Team.
Middle blocker Jess Robinson and opposite hitter May Pertofsky, meanwhile, both received invitations fresh off of All-Big Ten Freshman Team nominations. Pertofsky and Robinson were second and third on the team in blocks and third and fourth on the team in kills, respectively.
Even with just 204 college athletes from across the country taking part in the National Team tryout, it’s clear why Michigan’s young core were invited. But while their basis of selection may be evident, the Wolverines’ experience at the tryout was not as easily predicted.
The underclassmen knew they would be separated into three waves and participate in many drills over the course of the three-day February tryout in Colorado Springs, Colo. They knew that they would be split up by position and ranked by evaluators. They knew they would be separated from their teammates.
But they didn’t know just how much that might impact them.
“It was really individualistic,” Robinson said. “When we came back, the first thing our coaches asked us was to share one thing we thought we had learned at USA, and the first thing that I said was ‘teammates.’ ”
Robinson was offered a position on one of the national teams and turned it down. She cited her desire to work with her own team in Ann Arbor over the summer as the primary reason why.
Robinson wasn’t alone. Pertofsky, who was offered an alternate position, declined for the sake of her team as well.
“I think the biggest lasting impact for me, honestly, would be I never really realized how important having a real connection with the people you’re playing around is,” Pertofsky said.
“I remember I was blocking with a bunch of different middles, and then I went on a court with Jess (Robinson) and we were just super connected and super fluid, and it was fun. It just felt right.”
For the rest of the time, when it didn’t feel ‘right,’ the tryout was something new for all three Wolverines. It forced them out of their comfort zone and asked them to perform at the highest level possible without their Michigan teammates in order to impress the college coaches who served as evaluators. For Michigan coach Mark Rosen, who served as one of the evaluators, that lack of comfort was exactly what he wanted for his players.
“For us to learn, for us to grow, and for us to get better, we have to be uncomfortable,” Rosen said. “We have to struggle. We have to fail. … I want them to struggle, and not because I want them to not feel great, but I just know it's what they’re going to get better from.”
One of the largest struggles for the players at the tryout will be an important adjustment in the fall — adapting to a new setter. Experienced senior setter MacKenzi Welsh played her final season at Michigan this past fall, and the Wolverines will need to find a new rhythm with a fresh setter, whether that setter is former freshman Maddie Dowd or incoming freshman Jenni Liu. Jones, a player Rosen described as a strong tempo hitter, ran into some struggles with the constant switching of setters at the tryout.
“It was a little tough trying to connect with the setters there,” Jones said. “It was a good lesson to learn that we both had to adapt and it wasn’t on one person … but it was definitely a challenge.”
Jones didn’t bat an eye, however, at the insecurity of losing Welsh, citing the adaptability she, Robinson and Pertofsky learned in Colorado Springs as a key factor in the transition. “It can only go up from here,” Jones said. “It was nice that we had young players last year because now that we have that we’re able to just keep them and build off of their experiences that they had last year.”
The Wolverines will enter their upcoming season with just two seniors on the roster, only one of whom was in the starting rotation last year. And its young core looks ready to become a force come fall. Michigan is replacing seven seniors from a year ago and will have to rely on all levels of players to find success.
But after their tryouts, the Wolverines aren’t worrying much about experience or talent. They believe one thing to be more important than anything else: teamwork.