One of the best classes in Michigan volleyball history graduated last spring, leaving this year’s Wolverines with plenty of questions entering the season.
Most have already been answered.
Michigan’s all-time leader in kills, Katie Bruzdzinski, left a gaping hole in the Wolverine’s offensive attack. But thanks to the addition of junior transfer Juliana Paz and the stellar play of senior Beth Karpiak, the void left by the three-time captain is shrinking day by day.
Karpiak leads the team in kills with 92 and Paz is just behind with 88. Junior Megan Bower has also stepped up her play, tallying 82 kills in the team’s first nine games.
The rest of last year’s quartet of seniors included right-side hitter Sarah Draves, libero Stesha Selsky and co-captain middle blocker Lyndsay Miller. All three played a significant role in Michigan’s NCAA Tournament run last winter. And it’s Karpiak, senior Kerry Hance and sophomore Lexi Zimmerman who are key to repeating the success of last year’s team.
To return to the Sweet 16, Michigan must get even better play from Zimmerman, a 2007 AVCA All-America honorable mention. Last year, Zimmerman complemented the play of her teammates, especially the seniors, but she’s no longer a freshman along for the ride.
“Lexi’s in a new role because she’s such a talented player,” Michigan coach Mark Rosen said. “She’s running the offense more and running the team more instead of just delivering the ball.”
Zimmerman played a big role on last year’s team, averaging more than 13 assists per game. Rosen said her experience and exposure to the seniors’ mentality will help her reach the next level.
“I think one of the things (last year’s seniors) brought to this program and really developed in their time here was the sense of winning,” he said. “A sense of, if we’re in a battle, we’re going to win it. I see that in this team.”
Rosen’s optimism was justified last weekend on the road at Georgia Tech. The Wolverines lost their first game of the season in the first frame. The loss put a young and relatively inexperienced squad in a difficult position and Rosen asked his team whether they were going to fold, or toughen up. Michigan responded to Rosen’s pep talk, won game two and eventually took the match, 3-2.
While the team is doing its best to mimic last year’s play, there’s one big difference. Rosen decided to implement a new captain system. Rather than name captains, Rosen selected one member from each class as a representative.
“We have each person speaking from each class, so there’s not really one person sticking out,” Hance said. “It’s actually better that way because then the senior’s not doing all the leadership when in reality there’s only two seniors.”
The same attitude applied to selecting class representatives will be present on the floor, too. It’s one that is focused more on the team and less on the individual.
Last year, Bruzdzinski was the focal point of the offense, but this year the team has been forced to become more balanced. Without her game-changing skills, Rosen said he believes the team will benefit from a balanced approach. But he realizes that with less talent, the team has a smaller margin for error and cannot slip away from its game plan like it did at times last season.
“I don’t know that we can survive by just being out of system,” Rosen said. “I use the term ‘thug it up’ with the other team. I don’t see us being thugs. We got to be quick, we got to be more agile. So therefore we got to control the ball.”
Despite the new captain system, the seniors — Karpiak and Hance — are still the leaders of the team.
“You go as far as your seniors take you,” Rosen said.