During the final match of the Coke/Michigan Invitational on Saturday, four members of the Michigan volleyball team stood injured on the sideline with shirts over their jerseys and various body parts taped, watching their teammates battle through five sets against Duke.
A fifth player sat injured on a stationary bike, continuously pedaling, studying the opponent and waiting to enter the game.
Fifth-year senior right side hitter Claire McElheny has stood on the sideline through several games this season, but over the weekend, she finally got a chance to play Saturday evening.
“It was kind of like letting the tiger out of the cage,” McElheny said of her return. “I had a lot of built up energy to get in. There wasn’t any time for me to be nervous or start feeling the pressure, because I had to be there and be a steady presence.”
McElheny’s goal of consistency would be tough to attain after sitting out four weeks of the beginning of the season with an Achilles tendon injury she suffered during in nonconference play early in the season. During the Tiger invitational in Missouri at the end of August, McElheny, the team’s captain, first felt the pain and was sidelined after last playing against Virginia Tech. This injury requires time and patience to limit the amount of stress and pressure put on it.
“I was looking for a magic cure there for awhile,” McElheny said. “They just don’t have it, though. I did a bunch of treatment, but the biggest thing is rest.”
In the end, resting meant that the veteran was unable to practice or compete for almost a month, forcing Michigan coach Mark Rosen to shuffle his lineup.
McElheny, Michigan’s lone senior first returned to action against Eastern Michigan on Friday morning, tallying just two kills and a block in her limited time. But she aggravated her injury, forcing her to miss the match against Western Kentucky later that night.
On Saturday, McElheny entered the game against the Blue Devils in the second set, her team trailing 20-17, and recorded a kill right away. In the next set, she recorded a solo block that helped cap a 11-1 run. McElheny ended her night with two more kills, as part of a rally from a three-point deficit.
“She’s more experienced than anyone else in the gym.” Rosen said. “She’s also very unique. Her offense is more off of one foot and it’s very fast, so it creates a very different dynamic. All of the sudden we go from a very vanilla offense — pretty good but very predictable — to a very fast dynamic offense.”
Despite McElheny’s absence, the Wolverines have still gone 12-2 to open the season, but fell from the top 25 this week. The senior’s return couldn’t be at a better time, though, as McElheny will bring her experience to a young lineup that heads into Big Ten play on this week.
And she’ll begin Friday, having picked up more knowledge from her position on the sideline.
“I’ve gotten a different perspective standing on the side,” McElheny said. “I think with what I’m seeing, I can still help give input and stay engaged.”
Michigan faltered in Big Ten competition last year, finishing 12-0 in nonconference before going 8-12 in conference play. This season, the Wolverines have avoided putting too much pressure on themselves as they begin competition in arguably the toughest conference in the country.
Michigan opens up against Indiana (8-2) on Friday and concludes the weekend on Saturday night with a matchup against Purdue (9-2). With No. 3 Nebraska and No. 4 Penn State in the conference, a good start will be key to the Wolverine’s season.
“We’re trying to go out an play our best game every night and not focus on the other team instead of us,” McElheny said. “In years past we’ve approached a loss like ‘How do we handle that?’ and now we’re not over-exaggerating.”
But McElheny has priorities of her own to worry about as well.
“I need to focus on not taking any reps for granted,” McElheny said. “I need to make each point count because I’m not going to get that back.”