Expectations are high for the Michigan volleyball team as it enters the 2012 season ranked No. 23 in the American Volleyball Coaches Association preseason poll. Still, six other conference foes are ranked within the top-25, including No. 3 Penn State and No. 4 Nebraska.
This year’s ranking is one spot higher than the Wolverines’ preseason ranking last year, and Michigan finished the 2011 season in a tie at No. 20.
Michigan will be begin 2012 without senior outside hitter Alex Hunt, who led Michigan in kills and total points last season. But the Wolverines return a strong young core that Michigan coach Mark Rosen said he believes can compete in the Big Ten.
“You’re not at the right place if your goals aren’t to win the conference and compete on the national stage,” Rosen said. “We know we’re a young team and we’re trying to make sure we continue to develop and don’t get too far ahead of ourselves.”
Still, Rosen added that the rankings and preseason expectations aren’t something the Wolverines really give much attention.
“The ranking is something that hasn’t even come up,” he said. “I’m not sure we’ve even seen it. It doesn’t mean much. We haven’t won any games and we haven’t lost any games.”
Here is a breakdown, previewing each position for the Wolverines before they begin their season at the Tiger Invitational, which is hosted by Missouri, on Friday and Saturday.
Outside hitter/ Right-side hitter
The Wolverines should be equally as strong as last season at the outside hitter position, despite the loss of Hunt. Led by redshirt senior Clare McElheny and sophomore Lexi Erwin, the Wolverines should be a threat on the outside. Erwin was second on the team in kills in 2011 and looks to use her added year of experience to make up for Hunt’s absence. McElheny recorded 333 kills last season and was among the leaders on the team with a .277 attack percentage.
“Both of them have worked hard and they looked good in preseason camp,” Rosen said. “I’ve been impressed with how both of them are playing, but it’s going to be great for us to have that kind of depth.”
Michigan’s depth will begin with freshmen Ally Davis and Kelly Murphy, who have pleased Rosen with their skill and competiveness this summer. Davis, a native of Hinsdale, Ill., holds her high school’s record for career kills, kills in a season and blocks in a season.
Murphy, from Marietta, Ga., was named Georgia’s 2010 Gatorade Player of the Year. The standout also led her high-school team to back-to-back state championships in 2010 and 2011. It’s too early to say what type of impact Davis and Murphy will make, but being two of seven freshmen means they will see increased action immediately.
Junior Molly Toon also looks to see more time on the court this fall after being one of six Wolverines to top 100 kills last season. Toon, the sister of New Orleans Saints wide receiver Nick Toon, but will be looking for a breakout season to cycle into a talented hitter lineup.
Rosen said he feels comfortable with his starting setter, sophomore Lexi Dannemiller. Named to the Big Ten All-Freshman team, Dannemiller recorded 1523 assists while recording 15 double-doubles (assists/digs).
“Lexi has really transformed herself a lot from the last season to this season,” Rosen said. “She’s much stronger and much more physical, and it really shows in her game. We’re very excited about how her progression has gone and what she’s going to bring to the court. I think she’s one of the best setters in the country.”
Dannemiller’s young backup will be freshman Carly Warner from Naperville Ill. Warner will most likely see limited action at setter after Dannemiller showed her durability last season, by starting all 35 games.
Junior Ally Sabol will be counted on to lead Michigan’s back row this fall after it lost Sloane Donhoff to graduation. Donhoff’s 596 digs carried the back row last season, and Michigan will depend on Sabol (282 digs) to step in.
Redshirt junior Brittany Lee returns as the other Wolverine in the back row, but will feel like one of the two freshmen after missing most of last year with an injury.
Freshmen Lindsey Lerg and Tiffany Morales are expected to see time as well but face a learning curve at the collegiate level. Morales was also a swimmer and played water polo in high school, demonstrating her athleticism early on.
“One thing I noticed from day one of this season is that our team can control the ball very well,” Rosen said of his back row. “The passing game we’ve done a good job with, but it’s the defensive side that needs to get better.”
Rosen said eight of the 14 players can all be relied on to pass the ball this season, an abnormally high number compared to seasons past where Michigan had only three or four qualified passers.
Dannemiller and Erwin will also be counted on for their defensive talents, ending last season as team leaders in digs.
Rosen admits that Michigan lacks the most depth this season at the blocker position, despite returning the primary position players from last year.
“A lot of it has to do with how much youth we have on the court,” Rosen said. “Things aren’t always bad, it just means we need to learn quickly.”
The Wolverines most experienced blocker, junior Jennifer Cross, returns after a season in which she amassed 128 total blocks.
McElheny will also be counted on to assist from her right-side hitter position and redshirt freshman Olivia Reed will provide depth as another blocker.
In May, Cross was one of 34 athletes named to the Canadian national team and Rosen hopes her experience transfers over to her college game.
“I think she’ll be a big factor for us,” Rosen said. “She’s coming back from a little bit of injury she picked up at national team training, but she’ll certainly be back and we expect her to make an impact.”
Freshman Kristalyn Goode is also expected to be a key for Michigan’s blockers this year. Rosen noted that she has been progressing quickly and, though she has a long way to go, will be an important factor fairly soon.