At the end of a long August of preparation, Michigan volleyball coach Mark Rosen was excited to see another team besides his own at Cliff Keen Arena.
The Wolverines opened the season with their annual Michigan Invitational and rolled to a 3-0 start with dominant wins against Saint Louis, Miami (Ohio) and Northern Iowa.
Michigan began the weekend by hitting .438 in the first set of Friday night’s win against Saint Louis, and while the Wolverines didn’t reach that level again, they were consistent in all three victories, dispatching each opponent in roughly 90 minutes.
In doing so, they took the first step in a season that they hope will bring even more success than last year’s. Michigan finished 20-13 in 2015 and reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament. A 10-match win streak in the non-conference season was critical to that effort before the Wolverines managed to pull out nine wins in a grueling 20-match conference slate. A perfect weekend to start this year could have the same effect.
“I think when you’re going in as the favorite, it obviously gives you a little bit of confidence, but also that can be a team’s downfall,” said sophomore libero Jenna Lerg. “I think a really good thing about this team is that we take that confidence and we use it to our advantage instead of getting cocky and letting loose a little bit like a lot of other teams will.”
Each match was closer than the last, from Saint Louis on Friday night (25-19, 25-13, 25-14) to Miami on Saturday morning (25-16, 25-20, 25-18) to Northern Iowa on Saturday night (25-21, 25-20, 25-21). That trend reflected the overall results of the tournament, where Northern Iowa finished 2-1 in the round-robin tournament, followed by Miami and then Saint Louis. None of the three made the NCAA Tournament last year.
Playing three matches to start off the season, Michigan had the chance to experiment with several different rotations. Lerg led the team with double-digit digs in each match, but freshman defensive specialist Tiffany Clark and freshman setter MacKenzi Welsh each added 10 in one of the three. Senior middle blocker Abby Cole and sophomore outside hitter Carly Skjodt both had double-digit kills twice, led by Cole’s 17 against Northern Iowa to close the weekend.
At setter, Welsh began her career with three strong outings totaling 77 assists. Sophomore Maddy Abbott added 14 in the first match to provide a different look.
“We’re running a one-setter offense sometimes, then we’re switching into a two-setter offense, it was nice to see how that kind of worked,” said Michigan coach Mark Rosen. “We were (also) trying some different things defensively and blocking-wise, and I thought that we were really effective with that.”
Michigan also faced varying looks from its opponents. Against Northern Iowa, for instance, the Panthers employed a commit blocking strategy where they trapped the Michigan hitters, forcing them to adjust.
“We’re expected to win this, and we did, but it wasn’t just by default,” Cole said. “We had to make changes throughout all three of the matches, because this is our first real challenge as a team.”
In the Northern Iowa match, the Wolverines faced the most resistance, but they cruised for the better portion of every set. They only once committed more than six errors in a set while forcing their opponents to do so five times. On defense, they allowed just seven aces on the weekend.
Michigan has seven freshmen on this year’s team, with Welsh and Clark being the biggest contributors in the first weekend. Redshirt freshman Cori Crocker, who sat out last season, also saw her first action and totaled nine kills.
But they also have the powerful influence of Cole, an All-American in 2015 and a fourth-year starter who has played in two NCAA Tournaments. Michigan received 83 votes in the first coaches’ poll of the season, ranking 30th in the nation. With one weekend finished, the Wolverines now take their first road trip to Manhattan, Kan., to try to continue their win streak against Kansas State, Georgia Tech and Tennessee State.
“Sometimes when you play at home, you feel more pressure, because your friends and family are there, and (it’s) the first time you’re putting on a Michigan uniform, and you’re at Michigan,” Rosen said. “But I thought they handled it well, so now the good thing is we’ve got that out of the way. We’ll go on the road next weekend, play on the road, and I do think a lot of times, emotionally it can be easier playing on the road than at home.”