The Daily breaks down the conference schedule for The Michigan Volleyball team, and the many challenges it presents. Being one of the toughest conferences in the nation, almost every matchup in the Big Ten is sure to be a bloodbath. With multiple Top 10 teams, and title contenders, it’ll be an uphill fight for the Wolverines to come out on top — though there’s a possibility with the core they have at hand.
The first Big Ten match could offer the biggest challenge for Michigan right from the start.
Nebraska is the reigning NCAA volleyball champion, and it doesn’t look like its dominance will stop soon.
The Cornhuskers were consistently ranked as a Top 10 team throughout the nation last year, before reaching a top-five spot in conference play. Though they will have to replace a lot of production, they’ll focus on star Mikaela Foecke as the centerpiece of their game plan, as well as pushing for Jazz Sweet and Lauren Stivrins to take the next step for the program.
Over the previous three seasons, Nebraska has accumulated a 95-11 record, including two championships in three years. To put it simply, the Cornhuskers are the pinnacle of what a program should be.
Though the program drops a step in losing two of its top two attackers and its leading setter to graduation, it has faced this scenario countless times over the years — even over its championship-winning campaigns.
There’s no doubt that one of the biggest tests of strength will be how Michigan chooses to deal with the looming threat in Nebraska, especially since the first matchup is on the Cornhuskers’ home court. With the second matchup is at home for the Wolverines, the slight advantage might be able to tip the scale in their favor as the team has always been known to perform well with the fans at its back.
And any advantage Michigan can get against the Cornhuskers, it’ll take.
Iowa had a mediocre season in 2017, finishing with an 18-15 overall record and 7-13 record in the Big Ten.
It came as no surprise, as the program has oscillated between mediocrity and disaster over the last decade.
It was even less of a surprise how the season played out. The Hawkeyes were either dominated by better teams or well-matched against foes of equal or worse talent than them. The only exception was Michigan.
Of the 12 ranked matchups Iowa faced, the team lost eleven — including being swept 3-0 by seven of them. The one victory the Hawkeyes managed to claw away was against the Wolverines.
The matchup was a four-set letdown for Michigan, who saw its time on the court ending in utter dismay, as the loss propelled the team toward a negative trajectory.
The only player to show out for the Wolverines from the game was then-junior Carly Skjodt, who had a game-high 22 kills. The rest of the team lagged behind and fell hard to Iowa.
The difference this year is that the Hawkeyes look to be in complete rebuild mode with their roster — with the majority of its core comprised of freshmen or sophomores. The only anchor they can depend on is returning senior Taylor Louis — who led the team in kills in 2017.
The first matchup is in Des Moines, which could potentially be a trap if Michigan comes out too overconfident in the game. However, the Wolverines have a good history of returning the favor at home after an away loss.
If there was any constant in Big Ten volleyball, it’s Rutgers’ placement at the bottom of the standings.
Since joining the Big Ten, the program has only seen one Big Ten win over that four year span — which came in 2015 from a five-set up-and-down game over Maryland. It’s 5-27 season leaves a lot of room to grow, but little foundation to do so.
For Rutgers and its freshman and sophomore-heavy roster, the only positive is the potentially blank slate the team has coming into the season. With only one senior on the roster who’s experienced the woes of the program, the hunger needed to elevate the team could be present in those who have nothing but a negative legacy behind them.
The statistics speak for themselves, though. With almost a 1:2 kill-to-error ratio, the team doesn’t know how to capitalize on its attack, doing so at a conference-worst .143 attack percentage. In fact, no statistics favor the Scarlet Knights, whether against Michigan or any other Big Ten foe.
But until the game is played, there’s no guarantee for any outcome. A short-sighted Michigan could see a repeat of the 2015 Maryland-Rutgers matchup that ended in a loss for Maryland. Michigan coach Mark Rosen has always emphasized the seriousness of every match, regardless of the team, however, which should look to prevent an upset from occuring.
When the only major losses in a team’s season come from the national champion, the season should be considered a success, even if they didn’t win the championship.
With a near perfect record — 33-2 overall, 19-1 Big Ten — the Nittany Lions saw their only losses come from Nebraska, losing to them twice including a season-ending postseason loss.
In other words, they were every bit of world-beaters as the world-beaters themselves. Last season, Penn State returned to form with a strong regular-season record and a deep postseason run, something it had departed from just two years prior.
In part, it was due to Nittany Lion coach Russ Rose. Entering his 40th season at the helm, Rose has had one of the most successful runs as a coach — winning a nation-leading seven titles and 17 Big Ten championships. Having never had a season under 22 wins, he heads into the upcoming season as the all-time leading coach in wins.
Great coaching is what is needed in order to help Penn State through the transition from the loss of four of its top five offensive facilitators. Losing high-production talent is something all teams have to deal with eventually, but the annual pattern might hit this team harder than normally, as the makeup of the 2018 roster looks shallow and full of holes.
However, in the hands of Rose, any roster can be made to look like a legitimate contender, and even if they skip a beat initially, Michigan should be in for a hard-nose fight.
Purdue is a team that has had repeated success against Michigan until 2017. Dropping both of its matchups late in the season to the Wolverines is what had in turn helped Michigan make the NCAA Tournament.
Funny enough, before the 2017 season, Michigan had gone on a seven-year drought on wins against Purdue, a curse that plagued many of the seniors who graduated without a win against the Boilermakers. But when the team needed it the most, it prevailed with back-to-back wins.
Looking to repeat that success against Purdue, the Wolverines’ core anchored its win against the Boilermakers. Learning patience and the ability to build upon the slip-ups of Purdue helped the team mature into a tournament team.
Purdue will have to reshuffle a lot of its starting rotation, but the experience the new leaders of the team gained in the previous year should grow into success in tackling the new role on the team.
It’s been near a decade since Indiana last finished about .500.
Every year since 2010, it’s been the same old song and dance every season. The Hoosiers find ways to end their seasons in disappointing fashion, trying to start on a clean slate but failing and falling back into the process of returning to a .500 team.
Part of that disappointment was evident in 2017 when Indiana went nearly winless in conference play. In fact, the only team the Hoosiers did manage to beat was the one that went winless in the Big Ten — Rutgers.
The only thing worse than its 2017 season, however, is the trajectory of the roster. With no seniors and only two juniors, the youthful group looks to make an impact by relying on its underclassmen — many of whom have never had a minute of Division 1 (1st mentor) experience.
Michigan — who caught fire to end its regular season — had no trouble in dispelling the Hoosiers and soundly defeated them in a 3-0 sweep. If the direction Indiana’s program holds true, the Wolverines should look to repeat the result.
Wishy-washy is a good way to put Ohio State’s season. Ending 15-16, a clear departure from prior year’s 25 wins, the team struggled to adjust to the difficulty of its schedule and saw its resulting record dip to a below .500 — something the Buckeyes haven’t seen in over a decade.
However, with a solid rotation consisting of veterans and novices — not unlike Michigan — Ohio State look to bounce back this year. Standouts Lauren Witte, Jordan Fry and Hannah Gruensfelder look to grow into first option roles. Madison Smeathers will also adopt a bigger role on offense after displaying efficiency in the down season.
Finding new production will be essential for the Buckeyes in moving on from their off-year. They will use this as a learning tool to power them through the upcoming season — where they’re likely to face similarly challenging foes — especially in the Big Ten.
Michigan managed to sweep the series against Ohio State despite a midseason struggle. It won both games, 3-1, which in part, helped the Wolverines through the slump.
The upcoming matchups won’t be as easy as last year for either team as both teams look ready to move forward in development.
Maryland has had a recurring problem with mediocrity. Elevating Adam Hughes to head coach for the upcoming season is a step that further cements the complacency of the program to remain where it had always been — in the middle of the pack.
However, in the influx of transfers and recruits, the program looks to reach a 20-win season that could, in turn, allow the team to regain confidence — one of the factors they lacked taht contributed to their mediocrity.
Michigan has had a favorable history against the Terrapins, including a 3-1 win against them the year before. With a shuffle of the roster, however, things could be a mix of chaos that might turn the tides in favor of Maryland.
The closest team to Michigan in terms of talent and skill is Illinois. A 23-11 overall record and 12-8 Big Ten record came close to what Michigan finished with.
The similarity of the two teams showed in their matchup, where they traded losses at each respective home game. The games were tight-knit with each ending in five sets. However, as Michigan improved late in the year, Illinois did the reverse, finishing the season in a subpar fashion.
A sophomore-heavy group gives the Fighting Illini leeway in their performance levels though, as mistakes can be brushed off as simple inexperience.
Northwestern saw a bland 14-18 season — nothing unlike their previous four years.
However, the key to success for the program lie in their youthful core. With no seniors to lead them, the throne is open for the upcoming protégé to take. Hhow hungry they are to fill the leadership role will determine the level of success for the Wildcats.
Statistically, though, the team has owned a high-octane offense. But its strategy of high risk-high reward comes with an excessive amount of errors that have led the team to its current state.
In order to take the next step, balancing offense, errors and defense is the key for the program to evolve out of mediocrity and into the upper echelon of the Big Ten.
A perennial powerhouse, Wisconsin (22-10 overall, 11-9 Big Ten), saw a season that a middling team might consider successful, but a top-tier program would consider disappointing.
The problem was consistency. One week, the Badgers looked like world-beaters, the next, barely able to hold their own against bad teams.
In order to elevate its game, the team has to reach a level of consistency that matches its talent.
Returning nearly all of its main contributors, the team looks to top off the conference that lost a lot of talent and exploit the lack of a conference favorite by claiming it as its own.
Michigan has struggled against the Badgers in recent years, never hopping over the slight edge that Wisconsin had gained, even in the years the two teams were evenly matched.
The Big Ten has always had close battles for the top. Always in the midst of it is the Minnesota volleyball program.
Finishing 28-6 overall, 15-5 Big Ten, the Gophers were good enough to beat anyone, but failed against those who were arguably better.
At the end of the day, the team took to the third-place role, taking a backseat to Penn State and Nebraska. The size of the team had offered problems for Michigan — a problem exploited for a 3-0 win for the Gophers.
The combination of size and skill allowed the team to be successful, and that doesn’t look to change for the upcoming season.
The conference schedule will be a gauntlet for the Wolverines who enter the 2018 season with something to prove. The question now is: Can they take the heat?