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Michigan volleyball season preview

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Can the Wolverines return to the NCAA Tournament after a rebuilding spring campaign?

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Michigan Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Last season was likely always going to be a tough one for the Michigan volleyball team.

The Wolverines, who made five straight NCAA Tournaments from 2015 to 2019, saw the graduation of seven seniors from 2019’s 21-win team, including All-Big Ten First Team setter MacKenzi Welsh, the third-leading assister in program history.

While Michigan brought in VolleyballMag.com’s No. 6 recruiting class, lack of experience and frequent hiatuses proved problematic. The Wolverines had one senior on the roster, Kiara Shannon, who ultimately opted out of the season. Nine of the 12 Wolverines that saw the court were first or second-year players. Michigan started its season late due to the B.1.1.7 variant and lost four more games to COVID-19 in late February and early March.

The Wolverines went 4-9, by far their worst record of Mark Rosen’s 22-year tenure. But considering everything that worked against them last spring, it’s hard to read too much into a .308 winning percentage when looking ahead to this fall.

The Big Ten was the strongest (and most top-heavy) volleyball conference in the nation last season, and it wasn’t particularly close. Six teams — Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, Purdue, Ohio State and Penn State — were ranked in the top 15, and Wisconsin, Nebraska and Purdue all made the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight. Eight of Michigan’s 13 games came against those six juggernauts. Considering how little time the young Wolverines had to find a rhythm, it’s no surprise they lost all eight.

But Michigan went 4-1 in its other five games, showing that it had the talent to win in the Big Ten. With a normal schedule and a roster that’s wiser and stronger from one long, crazy year, there are better days on the horizon for the Wolverines.

Roster Breakdown

Michigan did have one veteran anchor last spring, and it would have been hard to ask for a better one.

An All-Big Ten First Team selection and AVCA All-American as a sophomore in 2019, Paige Jones took even more control in 2021 as the Wolverines’ unquestioned leader. The 6-foot-1 outside hitter racked up a team-high 3.58 kills per set, ranking sixth in the Big Ten, and in a five-set win over Indiana on March 12 set Michigan’s program record for kills in a single match with 37.

That’s not to say Jones did it alone last season, or that she will this fall. Outside hitter Jess Mruzik jumped right into the fray and smashed 3.54 kills per set, earning her way onto the Big Ten All-Freshman Team. The sky seems the limit for Mruzik, who was the National Gatorade Player of the Year coming out of high school at Farmington Hills Mercy H.S. in 2019 and was the Most Valuable Player of the 2019 FIVB U-18 World Championship, leading the United States to first place.

Junior May Pertofsky is Michigan’s most experienced opposite hitter by far, having been a starter since her freshman season. Pertofsky was third on the Wolverines in kills last spring and posted a team-best .319 hitting percentage while led the team in service aces with 14.

Replacing Welsh and her 5,223 career assists was never going to be easy, but freshman Scottee Johnson and sophomore Maddie Dowd stepped up to respectably fill the void at setter. Johnson was eighth in the Big Ten in assists per set at 8.33, while Dowd proved herself with 65 assists in the March 12 win over the Hoosiers.

The Wolverines return their top two middle blockers from last season, senior Kayla Bair and junior Jess Robinson. Robinson (1.84 kills per set) and Bair (1.32) were Michigan’s fourth and fifth-highest scorers a season ago, respectively, and two best shot-blockers. Bair blocked 34 shots; Robinson 30.

Hannah Grant, a Michigan State transfer, stepped in as Michigan’s primary libero in her first season as a Wolverine. Ranking seventh in the Big Ten in digs (4.2 per set), Grant, a redshirt sophomore this season, also added 62 assists and nine aces.

A key addition for the Wolverines this season might be USC graduate transfer Haley Hallgren, who’s attempting to take her talents indoors for her final season. Hallgren, a utility player, starred in beach volleyball for the Trojans and helped them to the national championship last spring. Per MGoBlue, Hallgren is the first former college beach volleyball player Rosen has ever had at Michigan.

Blocking was a weakness for the Wolverines, who didn’t have a player taller than 6-foot-2 last season and ranked last in the Big Ten in blocks per set. Freshmen middle blockers Jacque Boney and Mira Chopra could help. Not only are Boney and Chopra both 6-foot-4, but they also come to Ann Arbor with plenty of accolades: Boney was ranked the No. 26 recruit in the country by Prep Volleyball, and Chopra was named an honorable mention Under Armour All-American.

Outlook

Despite last season’s disappointing record, Michigan received 28 votes in the preseason AVCA Coaches’ Top 25 poll. In other words, the Wolverines are regarded going into the season as the 32nd-best team in the country and the best team in the Big Ten behind the super six of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, Purdue, Ohio State and Penn State. (They’re picked to finish eighth in the Big Ten coaches poll, behind Illinois).

Their young talent might have a lot to do with that, as might Rosen’s illustrious coaching career this far (18 NCAA Tournament appearances in 22 seasons in Ann Arbor). History shows Michigan volleyball doesn’t stay down for long — they’ve never missed back-to-back tournaments under Rosen.

Still, no matter how much untapped potential sits on the roster, the Wolverines have to prove themselves first.

Their schedule doesn’t hurt them. They won’t face one of last season’s NCAA Tournament qualifiers until their 10th game when they play defending A-10 champion Dayton at home. The first three weeks of Michigan’s schedule is populated with winnable games, giving the Wolverines the chance to ease into action, something they didn’t get last season.

Once into Big Ten play, that quickly changes. Michigan’s first conference game is at Minnesota, and only one week later, a road date with Nebraska looms. Another week, and then Minnesota, Ohio State and Wisconsin in an eight-day span.

The Wolverines aren’t at the level of the Big Ten’s elite, and that won’t and shouldn’t be the expectation for this season. If they can at least compete with them and assert themselves as better than the rest of the conference, that would be enough. The Big Ten has typically sent around seven or eight teams to the NCAA Tournament in recent years, and if Michigan has learned from the lumps it took last season, it might just be one of those teams this fall.

Schedule (times ET)

  • August 27 (6 p.m.) at LSU (SECN+)
  • August 28 (10 a.m.) vs. Florida State (Baton Rouge, La.)
  • August 28 (5:30 p.m.) vs. Northern Arizona (Baton Rouge, La.)
  • September 3 (12 p.m.) vs. West Virginia (Annapolis, Md.)
  • September 3 (7 p.m.) at Navy
  • September 10 (7 p.m.) vs. Duke (Crisler Center)
  • September 12 (1 p.m.) vs. North Carolina (Crisler Center)
  • September 17 (12 p.m.) vs. Eastern Michigan
  • September 17 (7 p.m.) vs. Boston College
  • September 18 (4 p.m.) vs. Dayton
  • September 24 (8 p.m.) at No. 7 Minnesota
  • September 26 (1 p.m.) vs. Michigan State (Crisler Center)
  • October 1 (6 p.m.) at No. 5 Nebraska
  • October 2 (7 p.m.) at Iowa
  • October 8 (9 p.m.) vs. No. 7 Minnesota (Crisler Center)
  • October 10 (1 p.m.) at No. 11 Ohio State
  • October 15 (7 p.m.) vs. Maryland
  • October 16 (7 p.m.) vs. No. 2 Wisconsin (Crisler Center)
  • October 20 (7 p.m.) at Indiana
  • October 23 (7 p.m.) at Illinois
  • October 29 (7 p.m.) vs. No. 11 Ohio State
  • October 30 (7 p.m.) vs. Iowa
  • November 5 (7 p.m.) at No. 12 Penn State
  • November 7 (1 p.m.) at Maryland
  • November 12 (7 p.m.) vs. No. 12 Penn State
  • November 13 (7 p.m.) vs. Rutgers
  • November 19 (7 p.m.) at No. 8 Purdue
  • November 21 (TBA) at Michigan State
  • November 24 (7 p.m.) vs. Illinois
  • November 26 (7 p.m.) vs. Northwestern