Balance is power.
For just the second time in program history, the No. 22 Michigan volleyball team boasts four players with at least 300 kills in a season — senior outside hitter Alex Hunt (396), sophomore outside hitter Lexi Erwin (361), redshirt junior outside hitter Claire McElheny (327) and senior middle blocker Courtney Fletcher (300).
With Hunt playing at her usual high level for most of the season, the other hitters and middle blockers have taken turns producing excellent offensive performances.
The NCAA Sweet 16-bound Wolverines (8-12 Big Ten, 22-12 overall) have become a much more complete team with increased depth at the net — a 180-degree turn from last season.
In 2010, the team’s offense was a one-player wrecking machine.
That player, Hunt, led the Wolverines’ attack with 503 kills, nearly twice as many as the duo of McElheny and then-freshman middle blocker Jennifer Cross, who tied for second most kills on the team with 261.
But when that machine was derailed late last season due to injury, the Wolverines struggled mightily.
In its matchup against Washington in the first round of the NCAA Tournament — the only contest Hunt missed all of last season — Michigan’s offense sputtered. In three sets, the Wolverines hit just 12.33 kills per set compared to their season average of 14.15, and their .137 attack percentage was well below their season average of .240.
“Sitting on the bench during NCAAs and watching your team lose and not being able to do anything about it, that really hurt a lot,” Hunt said earlier this season.
Though Hunt leads the team in kills again this season, she’s receiving increased support from her teammates. Michigan has shown that it is far more equipped to handle an injury to its star outside hitter.
With Hunt missing the majority of the Nov. 23 match against No. 16 Minnesota with an ankle sprain, the Wolverines hit for a .291 attack percentage en route to a resounding three-set victory. In Michigan’s following match — a five-set victory against Northwestern in which Hunt’s injury forced her to play only in the back row — it had five players with double-digit kills for the first time since October 2008.
“One of the reasons we have been good this year is because we haven’t had to rely on just one player,” said Michigan coach Mark Rosen. “We have a lot of players who can step up and put up pretty good offensive production.”
Early in the season, Erwin spearheaded the Wolverines’ offense. She earned Most Valuable Player honors with 48 kills in three games during the Michigan/Adidas Invitational in September. Recently though, sophomore outside hitter Molly Toon and McElheny have emerged as dynamic offensive weapons.
Though she has just 97 kills so far this season, Toon has become an impact player over the last couple of weeks, posting double-digit kills in four of her last eight matches. And with 31 kills and a .406 attack percentage through the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, McElheny’s superb play is one of the biggest reasons Michigan has advanced to the Sweet Sixteen.
“It gives us a lot of confidence to know that we have such great balance up front,” McElheny said. “Our production kind of just depends on how our opponents scout us. If they focus on just one or two of us, we know that the other players at the net will step up.”
Added Rosen: “I think that’s what has helped Alex this year. If somebody tries to go after her, then (McElheny) is going to go nuts on them, or Fletcher is going to go nuts on them or Cross is going to go nuts on them.”
B1G-TIME OBSTACLES: Prior to last weekend, the last time Michigan finished a weekend with more than one victory was over two months ago, when they went 3-0 during the Michigan/Adidas Invitational.
Coincidentally, those three games were also the last non-conference foes the Wolverines faced until the NCAA Tournament.
After starting its season with 12-straight non-conference wins, Michigan entered Big Ten play with high hopes. But disappointment followed, as the Wolverines struggled to maintain consistency throughout their conference schedule. They finished the season with an 8-12 conference record — their worst Big Ten mark in five years.
Fortunately for Michigan, teams from the same conference are prohibited from playing against each other in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
With victories against Baylor and Stanford in the first two rounds of the tournament last weekend, the Wolverines continued their undefeated record against non-conference opponents.
“I think everyone was looking forward to getting out of the conference,” Rosen said.
The strength of the Big Ten is well demonstrated by this year’s NCAA Tournament bracket —the eight teams selected from the Big Ten are the most of any conference. Of the 16 teams still standing, six are from the Big Ten.
Rosen suggested that the strength of the Big Ten has had a positive impact on the Wolverines during the postseason.
“I think our 14-0 (record) outside the conference speaks volumes about how good our conference is,” Rosen said. “You have to be on every piece of your game to be able to be successful in the Big Ten … but outside the conference, you maybe don’t have to be completely on your game because the teams just aren’t quite as good.”
PROGRAM ON THE RISE: Since taking over the head caching position 13 years ago, Rosen has turned Michigan into an elite volleyball program. Before hiring Rosen, Michigan had only appeared in the NCAA Tournament once in 26 years. But since 1999, Rosen has led the Wolverines to the NCAA Tournament in all but two seasons.
During the last five years, Rosen has taken Michigan volleyball to even greater heights. Friday’s matchup against Florida will mark the program’s fourth Sweet 16 appearance — all in the past five years. The Wolverines’ best postseason finish was two years ago, when they lost to Hawaii in the Elite Eight.
Rosen’s 261 total victories and .614 winning percentage rank him as the winningest coach in the program’s history.