Mark Rosen loves to talk about the little things.
Now in his 20th season at the helm of the women’s volleyball program, the Michigan head coach sees things through a lens fundamentally different than many others. To Rosen, effort and growth are equally important to scores and his team’s record.
Over the last month and change, his Wolverines have faced an uphill climb. Plagued by a slew of October injuries to three of its starters — redshirt junior middle blocker Cori Crocker, junior setter MacKenzi Welsh and junior opposite Sydney Wetterstrom — No. 15 Michigan (19-8 overall, 8-8 Big Ten) has seen its conference record slip to even.
A month ago, his team was sitting in a three-way tie for third place in the Big Ten. Now, the Wolverines’ conference record leaves them stranded well behind the leaders of the pack. At a time when many coaches would press the panic button, Rosen is calm as can be. The most recent domino fell on Saturday night in front of a sold-out Cliff Keen Arena with a loss to No. 6 Nebraska (20-6, 11-5) — 25-15, 20-25, 26-28, 24-26.
Through thick and thin, Rosen remains focused on one goal: improvement.
During the recent seven week stretch of assembling makeshift lineups to accommodate injuries, Michigan had the chance to develop three players who began the year on the bench: junior opposite Katarina Glavinic, freshman middle blocker Kayla Bair and freshman setter Erin O’Leary.
On Saturday night, the improvement that Rosen has been preaching for weeks was on full display when his two worlds collided: the realm of coaching his healthy lineup from September and the sphere of developing bench players in place of injured starters during October.
While Crocker was sidelined for a month, Glavinic and Bair saw unexpected playing time at the middle position. Although neither player posted flashy numbers, both were exposed to an irreplaceable component of the growth process: experience on the court.
Glavinic rose to the occasion against the Cornhuskers — not only one of the best teams in the conference, but the country at large. She posted an efficient .308 attack percentage and played a crucial role in the team’s offense, thus proving that she’s the perfect complement for the now-healthy Crocker. While Wetterstrom remains without a timetable for her injury, Glavinic’s improvement confirms that she can hold down the fort in the meantime.
Another player whose leap forward cannot go unnoticed is Kiara Shannon. The sophomore middle blocker had arguably the best match of her career against Nebraska, largely due to the amount of experience in the spotlight she gained during Crocker’s absence. She recorded eight kills on just 15 swings — good for a career-high attack percentage of .533 — while also adding a team-high four blocks.
“Both Kiara and Katarina have been working really hard to get better at their positions,” Welsh said. “I think it’s really starting to show now that we have more confidence in them on the court.”
In the matches leading up to Saturday, the Wolverines fell into a predictable pattern. When Crocker and Wetterstrom went down, Welsh’s set distribution became extremely reliant on senior outside hitter Carly Skjodt and freshman outside hitter Paige Jones. Ultimately, this strategy led to a lack of production once opponents were able to zero in on just two players.
“If every team knows we’re only going to score from the outside, they can leave other players alone if they can’t get kills,” Rosen said. “In that case, we’re doomed. You’re not going to beat really good teams with only two good hitters.”
Saturday’s common theme of improvement trickled down to Welsh, who notched 45 assists in four sets while also adding a match-high four service aces — a performance that put to rest any doubts about her health after she suffered a concussion on Oct. 26. Instead of relying on just Skjodt and Jones, Welsh maximized production in the middle from Glavinic and Shannon to prevent Nebraska’s defense from commit-blocking on the left pin.
“The difference between our offense now and before we had a bunch of injuries is our balance,” Rosen said. “We had balance (before the injuries); we always had the threat of setting the middle. If you left them alone, we were going to score there. And tonight, I think it showed we’re finally starting to get back to that.”
Moving forward, Rosen is left with the best problem a coach can have. The recent surge of improvement amongst Michigan’s front row reserves, coupled with the return of Crocker and Welsh, gives Rosen four legitimate options — Crocker, Shannon, Bair and Glavinic — to fill just three positions — two middle blocker spots and an opposite attacker.
Now that more than a month’s worth of unprecedented growth has added a handful of weapons to the fold, the Wolverines have turned their heads to the search for the final piece of the puzzle: stability.
“There’s silver lining in everything,” Rosen said. “We got to develop some depth (while our starters were injured). Now, we’ve got to stabilize our lineup.”
Once the puzzle is finished, it might be the best masterpiece Michigan has put together in years. As a result of the reserves’ experience on the court during October’s wave of injuries, the Wolverines became one of the only teams in the nation with multiple proven players at each front row position. With December’s NCAA Tournament looming, there’s no better time to flex depth and improvement.