Three years ago, I was assigned to interview the five freshmen on the Michigan volleyball team. I was scared because with the exception of Stesha Selsky, all of them were taller than me.
Fortunately, they sat during the interview. Unfortunately, my recorder didn’t work. But what I captured that afternoon that my recorder couldn’t was that this group was poised to do great things.
And why not? It was the No. 6 recruiting class in the nation as ranked by prepvolleyball.com. Four of the five recruits were in the top 100. Two of them (Selsky and Katie Bruzdzinski) won player of the year in their respective states. And three of them were major contributors on a team that went 9-1 in nonconference play.
So I didn’t feel like I was going out on a limb when I figured this class would lead the Michigan volleyball team to its first regular-season Big Ten Championship.
What I didn’t know at the time was the Big Ten isn’t a cakewalk. The snow-covered Midwest is a far cry from the sun-drenched West Coast, but the Big Ten has some of the nation’s perennial volleyball powers – Penn State, Minnesota and Ohio State.
After the super freshmen helped the team to a 20-win season, the Wolverines fell flat the next year, finishing 13-16. The class of 2008 wasn’t solely responsible for the down year, but it sure took it personally. The five fought back for another 20-win season last year, even after the injuries hurt the team at the beginning of the Big Ten season.
Despite all the words and phrases that could describe the class of 2008 (talented, tenacious and tall), the one that still eludes it is Big Ten Champion. On the surface, this looks like a major disappointment.
But don’t let that fool you. This senior class may not have the hardware yet, but it’s given more to Michigan volleyball than a trophy could.
Selsky, Bruzdzinski, Sarah Draves and Lyndsay Miller not only built on Michigan coach Mark Rosen’s winning tradition, they’ve transformed the way the team thinks of itself.
“When we first got here, our team looked at the Big Ten like, ‘Wow, the Big Ten is really good,’ type of thing, sort of a justification for not coming into the top five,” Selsky said. “Now, we look at it, and we’re not afraid of it. We’ve changed that outlook for our team this year to say, ‘You know what, OK, so what?’ “
This year, the seniors’ influence has translated into Michigan playing, training and even winning better than ever before.
Miller called it a “grittiness” the team didn’t have last year when a 12-0 start didn’t translate into conference success. This newfound grittiness has allowed the Wolverines to win, even when they’re not at their best.
Last season, Michigan failed to take a five-game match. But four weeks into this season, it’s already 3-0 when it goes the distance. And in two of those matches, the Wolverines came from behind, including last Saturday’s win over Georgia Tech.
So there’s reason to believe the Wolverines can finish above .500 in conference play for just the second time in Rosen’s eight-year tenure.
The seniors can’t do it all on their own, of course. Freshman setter Lexi Zimmerman will be just as important for conference success as the four starting seniors.
But the class of 2008 is front and center this weekend for the start of the Big Ten season. It’s time for the four to shine and help propel the program to even greater heights.
“Are they good enough?,” Rosen asked of whether this class is the greatest in the program’s history. “Sure, but that’s something you have to go out and prove.”
This weekend will be the seniors’ first step.
– Bosch can be reached at email@example.com.