Jess Mruzik spoke at the inaugural Big Ten Volleyball Media Days. Julianne Yoon/Daily.  Buy this photo.

CHICAGO — When Michigan junior outside hitter Jess Mruzik arrived at Michigan after graduating high school a semester early in January 2020, she finally got the opportunity to take her talents to the collegiate level. But when she contracted mono and spent weeks dealing with the illness, she faced her first road bump. 

And when she finally returned to campus, she was met with an even bigger setback: a complete shutdown of the University due to the onset of COVID-19. 

Now, heading into her third season, Mruzik will get to play in an environment that’s foreign to her — one without the heavy burden and impediment of the pandemic. 

After leading the Wolverines with 446 points and 389 kills en route to collecting First Team All-Big Ten accolades last year, Mruzik enters the upcoming season with experience, drive and the desire to lead.

In the inaugural Big Ten Volleyball Media Days, Mruzik put aside discussing her formidable on-court skills to focus on what she can bring to the locker room.

“This year I definitely see myself as someone who is going to try and push my teammates to be better every single day,” Mruzik said. “But also, they’re pushing me to be better.”

Mruzik is used to being pushed, whether it comes from herself, her teammates or her opposition.  When she joined the program, Mruzik received her first big push — this one, from the ruthless Big Ten. Quickly, other teams were able to figure her out, target her and come after her. But she learned to adapt, overcoming the challenge to stay one step ahead of her competition.  

“A lot of people, they’ve done things to try to affect her game because they need to be able to try to slow her down,” Michigan coach Mark Rosen said. “She’s one of the best learners I’ve ever worked with, she picks things up very quickly.”

Despite finding ways to deal with conference challenges and earning an AVCA All-American Honorable Mention, Mruzik’s season ended on a sour note: a first-round NCAA Tournament exit to Ball State, leaving the Wolverines disappointed and dissatisfied. 

This year, with only two incoming freshmen on the team, nearly every Michigan player is holding onto that loss as additional motivation for this season. 

“You could just visually see on people’s faces that we were disappointed,” Mruzik said about last season’s tournament loss. “I definitely know we’ll play with a fire under us this year.”

And Mruzik is somebody who can help lead the Wolverines past the heights they reached one season ago. 

With an increased understanding of the competition and a more advanced skill set, Mruzik — despite only being a junior — serves as a prominent leader for Michigan.

Mruzik recognizes that the Wolverines cannot rest on the success of making the tournament last year, and instead must take that learning experience — and the pain of that defeat — to reach a different outcome this year.

“She’s extremely competitive,” Rosen said. “… And I think that’s a true test of a champion, somebody who can take those battles and really kind of enjoy (them) as well as learn through them.”

The competitive nature that drives Mruzik is something Michigan needs in order to find success within the high-level Big Ten field. And it’s something that Mruzik aims to spread through her leadership.

“Like Mark mentioned, I’m pretty competitive,” Mruzik said. “That’s definitely what I like to bring into the gym every day and into our practices.”

With high aspirations this season, the Wolverines need somebody to lead the charge. And after facing — and overcoming — road bumps throughout her first two years at Michigan, Mruzik believes she can be the one to take the helm.