In Friday morning’s season opener, the Michigan volleyball team’s two class of 2019 early signees flashed more than just potential.
In their debuts, freshmen Jess Robinson and May Pertofsky were the driving offensive forces in the 15th-ranked Wolverines’ sweep of Oakland. The duo maintained the two highest attack efficiencies on the team, even while leading the offense in total volume. Pertofsky and Robinson finished with nine and eight kills, respectively, on just 22 combined swings.
While most freshmen are prone to mistakes, the two committed just three hitting errors in total — good for a collective hitting percentage of .636. For reference, roughly .250 is considered the average for a pin hitter. It’s only August, and the program’s two blue chip recruits are already posting encouraging numbers.
Take one play in the second set, for example. With Michigan up 17-10, Robinson’s eyes lit up as an errant Golden Grizzly forearm pass began a trajectory across the net. She took a half-step backward, loaded up and leapt almost immediately. She seemingly levitated and, soon after, celebrated after burying the overpass with ease.
“When she jumped, we all thought she jumped early,” said Michigan coach Mark Rosen. “But she kept going up and the next thing we knew, she was perfectly on time. With things like that, you don’t know them real well yet so you see those things and they’re exciting.
“… There’s still tons to learn for them. They’re good learners and they’re super competitive, and I think they did a really nice job coming out of the gates.”
Expectations for Robinson — the nation’s No. 8 recruit, according to Prep Volleyball — were particularly high over the summer. After finding herself in the middle of a four-horse race for two middle blocker jobs, the 6-foot-2 in-state product’s debut will only keep the hype train rolling. Pertofsky, meanwhile, hails from Los Angeles, where she racked up three All-League Gold Coast MVP awards during her high school career.
Though both of them are natural outside hitters, they’ve been seeing the most court time at opposite and middle blocker in what Rosen calls his “three middle offense.”
With four legitimate candidates for just two starting middle blocker spots, Rosen got creative. In order to preserve the 6-2 system — a volleyball notation that translates to six eligible hitters and two setters — the Wolverines are able to keep Pertofsky and Robinson at the right side pin. Fifth-year senior middle blocker Cori Crocker and sophomore middle blocker Kayla Bair both perform best with attackers on each side of them, and Rosen is able to sandwich them between two other eligible hitters by keeping his two prized freshmen at the right pin. Bair opened the season sidelined with an injury, but it’ll be a sustainable system even when she returns.
It’s the best way to keep each weapon involved without sacrificing one of senior setter MacKenzi Welsh’s options, but the option wouldn’t even be on the table if Robinson and Pertofsky weren’t versatile enough to handle it. Thanks to their experience as outside hitters, adjusting to the new system didn’t take long for the newcomers.
“It allows us to put (Bair and Crocker) in a position where they can play straight up middle and never have to worry about being in a 5-1, but you have to have versatile players to do it,” Rosen said. “When Jess and May came in, we could see they can hit second tempo balls, they can block on the right, they can hit in transition and they can hit out of system. So we started cooking up this system because it allows us to hide some of our weaknesses while maximizing our strengths.”
Friday morning wasn’t a sign of what Robinson and Pertofsky can do in this system down the road, it was a sign of how they can help take the Wolverines back to the Sweet 16 — if not deeper into the NCAA Tournament — sooner rather than later.
“We’re excited about (the system),” Rosen said. “It gives us the best chance to be competitive at a high level. We’ve still got a lot of work to do, but they’ll get there.”