Jess Mruzik, Mark Rosen, and Jess Robinson sit at the table before the press for Big Ten Volleyball Media Days.
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CHICAGO — As players and coaches sat in front of microphones speaking to reporters, the inaugural Big Ten Volleyball Media Days felt like a far cry from the pandemic-induced restrictions of just a few short months ago.

And as the Michigan volleyball team nears the start of the season, that change is a welcome relief.

“This group, honestly, hasn’t seen a normal year yet,” Michigan coach Mark Rosen said on Monday. “That’s what I’m super excited about. … I was thinking about it on the way here today. This is the first year for these guys to know we’re just going in ready to play volleyball.”

That excitement could prove vital for the Wolverines’ elevated goals after Michigan lost to MAC-champion Ball State in last season’s NCAA Tournament. In a season mired in uncertainty against a stacked Big Ten field, the Wolverines still managed to find their way into the tournament.

If Michigan could find its way into the postseason during an uncertain era, the removal of looming doubts — that players will be available, that games will be played, that COVID-19 won’t shut down society at any moment — could make the difference for a team determined to make a deeper run in the NCAA Tournament. 

“It’s nice just to be focused on volleyball and being able to get after it, and I think this group’s really ready,” Rosen said. “For these guys I’m excited for them to see what it’s like to not have to worry about all the other stuff that we’ve had to deal with.”

But those environmental stressors disappeared for other schools too. The Wolverines should enjoy a season returned to normalcy, but Wisconsin, Nebraska and Minnesota — all teams they need to beat if they want a chance at a Big Ten title — will reap the same benefits of a normal season.

And although the Big Ten is stacked, contending for a conference title is well within their reach. Spring game performances built on their optimism as they faced off against skilled opponents to prepare for the upcoming season — including tournament teams in Ohio State and NCAA Tournament semifinalist Pitt.

“I would definitely say that last year’s freshmen have made a huge improvement,” junior outside hitter Jess Mruzik said. “It’s incredible to see how they’ve matured over the course of one year. I’m really excited for this year’s sophomores.”

As those sophomores come in with a season under their belts on a veteran team compared to the last few seasons, Michigan hopes it can compound a return to normalcy with the lessons it learned during its last chaotic season. With more control over their own season, the Wolverines hope to push deeper into the NCAA Tournament.

“I think everyone knows the seriousness of it, we all know what it takes,” senior middle blocker Jess Robinson said. “We all know how much we have to give, how much we have to put in every single day for the next four or five months, and I think we’re all ready for that and we’re definitely all old enough that we’ve been through it once.

“And this year especially with it being my last year, we’re not going down without a fight.”

After fighting external battles last season, Michigan can now focus on battling its opponents.