It’s hard to look at the Michigan volleyball team’s 2-7 record and three-game losing streak headed into conference play and call its non-conference performance a success. But with the amount of change in the program, it isn’t surprising.
The 2023 season is Erin Virtue’s first as the Wolverines’ head coach, after a seven-year hiatus from the program spent coaching at Northwestern and the U.S. Olympic team. Nearly the entire roster was recruited by former head coach Mark Rosen, and all of them are learning a new system implemented by an entirely new coaching staff.
“We’re just still trying to grow as a team and we’re still learning,” acting head coach Benavia Jenkins said Sunday after a loss to Bowling Green. “And I know we’re going into conference (play) next week, but this is still a new team and a fresh team and we’re just trying to continue to find those pieces. … We’re just really trying to figure out the right formula that’s gonna get us a win.”
But with conference play starting Friday, the time for experimentation has to end soon. It’s hard for a team to establish its identity without consistency. Michigan hasn’t had that in practically any aspect of its lineup — starting with its head coach.
Virtue has missed four games thus far to coach the Olympic team, notably the back-to-back five-set matches the Wolverines dropped to Bowling Green last weekend. She will again be absent for Michigan’s two first Big Ten contests: at home against rival Michigan State and on the road at No. 12 Minnesota.
At Big Ten Media Days, redshirt senior libero Hannah Grant and senior outside hitter Allison Jacobs lauded the impact Virtue’s coaching has on the Wolverines. So her absence, compounded by injuries to both Grant and Jacobs — two returning seniors and team leaders — is a heavy weight holding Michigan back.
With Grant out, the Wolverines lost a player who has started every match of her Michigan career. The Wolverines have been forced to experiment at the libero position for the first time in three years, starting junior Maddi Cuchran and senior Brooke Humphrey during nonconference play. They have also rotated freshmen into the lineup, hoping that some combination of new faces will translate to on-court success.
But never seeming to find the right lineup, this mixing and matching has yielded sloppy results. Michigan has struggled consistently with communication. Against Bowling Green, ball after ball dropped to the ground because either too many or too few Wolverines went for it.
The voices of the Falcons rang loud throughout the gym, calling for the ball, for a free ball and for a long serve. But on the other side of the net, Michigan’s own silence was deafening.
“We have to control what we can control,” Jenkins said. “We can control our serving, our communication and we can control our errors.”
Unforced errors on serves have plagued the Wolverines all season. They haven’t had a match with more service aces than service errors. With a weak foundation for each potential run, Michigan struggles to build and sustain momentum with its serving. Its unforced errors on passes and attacks that sail out of bounds accumulate, serving points up to its opponents on a silver platter.
But errors happen when teams are inexperienced. With freshmen adjusting to collegiate play and new lineups unaccustomed to playing together, the Wolverines are practically the definition of inexperienced.
“A lot of these people weren’t playing together before,” sophomore middle blocker Serena Nyambio said Sunday. “(We have) a new coaching staff, everything is pretty new to us. As time goes on and as we mature, it’s going to come together.”
With all of the changes in the program, a winning season isn’t a realistic expectation for the 2023 Michigan volleyball team. But the Wolverines need more consistency, no matter how much has changed.