Wolverines to host pair of ACC foes in home opener

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By Jacob Gase, Daily Sports Writer
Published September 4, 2014

In its first action of the season in Arkansas, the Michigan volleyball team faced two serious challenges.

First, the Wolverines had no scouting reports on any of the three teams they played. On top of that, an injury-depleted roster led to a starting lineup with little experience.

This weekend, Michigan (2-1) opens its home schedule by hosting Duke and North Carolina in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge at Cliff Keen Arena. And luckily for the Wolverines, both of the problems from last weekend have solutions.

“We didn’t know anything about the other teams (last weekend),” said Michigan coach Mark Rosen. “We have tape on Duke and tape on North Carolina. We still don’t have a ton of information, but at least we can put together a scouting report to kind of prepare our players ahead of time.”

With or without a scouting report, this won’t be an easy pair of matches for the Wolverines. Ranked No. 19 and No. 20, respectively, the Blue Devils (3-0) and Tar Heels (2-1) are the first ranked opponents on Michigan’s arduous regular season schedule.

To survive the tough matchups, the Wolverines hope to turn to a pair of returning junior outside hitters, Ally Davis and Kelly Murphy. Neither has played this season because of preseason injuries, but they could be ready to return as soon as Friday, bringing the experience that the Wolverines have been sorely lacking back to the court.

“In an emergency, they probably could have gone yesterday,” Rosen said after last weekend’s tournament. “But we just didn’t feel it was in our best interests to do it if we didn’t completely have to. I think as this week develops, they should be right back in the mix. That’s our hope.”

Both veterans were active in practice this week and appeared ready for game action.

For the second consecutive weekend, though, Michigan will be without its most experienced leader, senior setter Lexi Dannemiller. After missing the Arkansas Invitational due to an “internal rules” violation, the co-captain was expected to make her return Friday against Duke. That plan changed when she was diagnosed with mononucleosis earlier this week.

The hole at the setter position will likely be filled by junior Carly Warner, who proved herself to be a capable replacement by making the All-Tournament team in Arkansas. Warner seems to have embraced her new leadership role, which could be key for the Wolverines this weekend and beyond.

“My team really backs me up,” Warner said. “They really respect the decisions I make when I’m setting and respect that I’m going to be there for them, set them the ball, and give them a good ball to hit.”

While Rosen knows his team will be facing two talented opponents this weekend, the season is still young, and the team’s focus remains primarily on itself.

“I’d say 90 percent of our focus is going to be on us, and 10 percent on them,” Rosen said. “We know that they’re going to be tougher teams, and we want to beat them, no question. But we still have a ton of stuff we’ve got to get better at.”

Almost at full health now, Michigan hopes to improve while establishing a more natural lineup and rotation. Forced into expanded roles last week, the team’s freshmen can now return to their original positions, providing depth and game breaks for the veteran players.

Increased depth and experience should strengthen an already-potent offensive attack led by sophomore middle blocker Abby Cole. Cole has started the season red-hot, picking up 46 kills and leading the Big Ten with a .512 hitting percentage.

Whether or not the full-strength offense can keep the Wolverines competitive in the stacked Big Ten remains to be seen. But the way the team performs in its first big test this weekend could be a strong indicator of things to come.