Continuing our preseason looks at Olympic sports, aka non-revenue, today we look at the #16 ranked* women's volleyball team. The volleyball team tips off on CBS College Sports later this week, as they face off in the Runza/AVCA Showcase, the premiere early season tournament in NCAA volleyball. Michigan opens with #3 Nebraska, who is virtually hosting event in one hour from campus in Omaha, NE, at 9:30pm (EDT). The second game for the Wolverines will be against #22 Kansas State on Saturday at 7pm (EDT), yet again on CBS College Sports. Tune in and cheer on your Wolverines. And yes, there is a hype video. And it is awesome.
If you're in the Omaha area, you can get tickets for individual matches for $16.50 (plus whatever surcharges ticketmaster adds on if you go that route), or $28 (again, possible extra ticketmaster charges) for a two day pass. And yes, they can charge that amount that close to Lincoln, where volleyball is almost as big as football.
The volleyball team became a varsity sport in 1973 as part of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW), the women's sports association prior to the NCAA sanctioning women's sports. As the NCAA pretends AIAW and all it's statistics don't exist, Michigan volleyball's overall record is broken down into different categories. In the AIAW, Michigan compiled a record of 148-120-7 (.553) including games against 2 year schools and Canadian schools. Since joining the NCAA, Michigan has compiled a record of 412-417 (.497) against 4-year US schools only. If you throw in the smaller schools, Michigan has a 574-552-7 (.510) record.
Michigan has 11 post season appearances, including 9 NCAA tournaments in the last 12 seasons. Eight of those NCAA appearances came under the direction of current coach Mark Rosen(pictured below and right). Rosen is starting his 11th year at Michigan, which ties him with Sandy Vong (pictured above), Michigan's first ever volleyball coach, for the longest tenure among Michigan volleyball coaches. In Rosen's time, he's amassed a 189-132 (.589), but has never had a team finish higher than 5th in conference. Despite the conference record, Michigan has made it to the Sweet 16 in the past season the last two years.
The 2008 season was expected to be a rebuilding year for the Wolverines. They lost the Michigan all time leader in kills Katie Bruzdzinski, all time blocks leader Lyndsay Miller, and all time digs leader Stesha Selsky. That's some considerable loses. Despite the loss of such all time greats, Michigan also returned a few very strong players in setting Lexi Zimmerman, middle blocker Beth Karpiak, defensive specialist turned libero Kerry Hance, right side hitter Megan Bower, and outside hitter Veronica Rood. Karpiak was as dominant as they come out of the BigTen and Zimmerman came into the season as one of the conferences best setters.
Michigan would start the season hot with a 13-0 run including the BigTen opener at Ohio State. Things were going well – then, the reality of the BigTen season kicked in. Michigan went 12-8 over the conference season tied for the second highest in Wolverine BigTen history. In individual games, Michigan went 44-15 on the year, which is damn impressive. Michigan went 9-3 in matches going 3 sets, 11-6 in matches lasting 4 sets, and 0-3 in full five set matches. This was a big step forward in BigTen volleyball for program as Michigan finished 5th in conference.
Michigan ultimately went on to the NCAA tournament to upset Kentucky and Saint Louis to reach the Sweet 16 where they ran into perennial power Nebraska. Michigan finished the year 27-9, the best season record (by percentage) in the history of the program.
This Season's Players
The Wolverines only lose two players from last year's squad in Kerry Hance and Beth Karpiak. Expectations are high and rightfully so. Michigan returns the league's top setting Lexi Zimmerman. Zimmerman made the Honorable Mention list for All American as a freshman in 2007 and made the Second Team All American in 2008. She is the unsung star of the team. Her 2008 season saw her garner 11.37 assists, 1.37 kills and 2.65 digs per set. Her assist rate was second in the conference to only Penn State's Alisha Glass.
Zimmerman's two top targets will be outside hitter Juliana Paz and left side hitter Alex Hunt. Paz, a senior, lead the the team with 3.31 kills last year with some outstanding power in her hits. The native Brazilian also ranked second on the team in service aces last season with 33. Hunt is a left handed sophomore. As a freshman, she registered 243 kills, good for fourth on the team. Hunt was named to the Freshman All-BigTen team for her efforts and joined the US Junior National team.
On the right side, Megan Bower will be returning after finishing last season with 282 kills – third most on the team. Bower offers both power and a little bit of extra height at 6"-1' to help with blocking. Also returning on the right side is Cassie Petoskey. Petoskey is a native of Ann Arbor, going to Pioneer High School and comes from a long line of Michigan athletes. Her father lettered in wrestling, her grandfather in football, and her great uncle in 3 different sports. Even her brother plays for the lacrosse team. Cassie is as tough as they come, she even wrestled in middle school. She'll see more playing time this year than the last couple.
In the middle, the loss of Beth Karpiak is huge, but we have a couple good options returning. Red shirt sophomore Karlee Bruck really came on strong last year as the second middle blocker in Michigan's rotation. Last year, she finished with 13 solo blocks, second only to Karpiak, but she also lead the team with 90 block assists. Her hitting percentage was also pretty good at .278, but there is definitely room for improvement. Middle blockers generally have the highest hitting percentages on the team as they are generally a misdirection play.
Also rotating into the middle this year will be Veronica Rood. Rood is a converted outside hitter. As a junior, she didn't see that much time on the court, but her height at 6-1 should give her a little bit of an edge on blocking. I also wouldn't be surprised to see her being a bit more of a free swinger in the middle as compared to Bruck.
In the back court, Michigan returns Sloane Donhoff and Maggie Busch. Donhoff will be making the move to libero to start the season. Last year, as a freshman, Sloane was immediately put into a position to become the primary defensive specialist on the team. She finished the year with 321 digs, tied for third most on the team. Donhoff was also a very productive server, knocking in 43 service aces, the most on the team and second most in the BigTen. Busch, a junior, saw time in 120 different sets last season, but never for very long. She registered only 42 digs and 28 service aces over the whole season.
Michigan faces a tough schedule right out of the gate this year. Michigan faces the #3 and #22 teams in the nation this weekend in the American Volleyball Coaches Association tournament in Omaha, NE. This will be the eighth time in fifteen years that Michigan opens with a top 15 opponent. In all, Michigan will play 6 different teams ranked in the AVCA preseason poll and another three also receiving votes.
After the first weekend, the rest of Michigan's non-conference schedule shouldn't be too difficult. Tennessee is the biggest name on the list, but they are only in the receiving votes category of the current preseason poll. Heading into BigTen play, one would expect Michigan to have at least a 10-3 record, but even that might be a slight disappointment.
The conference season will be a bit tougher. The BigTen is a big volleyball conference. Penn State is the obvious favorite as they have not lost a game since September of 2007. They also return 4 All Americans and 10 letter winners. Illinois, Purdue, and Minnesota are also projected to be strong this year. Michigan has not won a game in Madison, WI in over 16 years. Even Michigan State has a strong team.
Looking at the schedule, I think Michigan could start the BigTen season 4-4. Each week has one very winnable game and one that could be extremely tough. In Michigan's favor, though, is the 4 game home stand from November 13th to November 20th. This stretch will help Michigan lessen any possible gaps that may form in the standings, setting up a season finale with Penn State that could potentially mean something. That might be a pretty lofty goal (challenging Penn State for the conference title), but it's not totally out of the idea either.
If you haven't been out to Cliff Keen Arena for a volleyball game, you are really missing out. Volleyball has some of the loudest and most loyal fans at the university, averaging just over 900 per match. Even the old blue hairs get up and cheer on the maize and blue. Just ask anyone about the super old guy that used to always be in the front row dancing along. I'm not sure if he makes it out to every game, but he was always one of my favorite UM personalities. Even "The Zone" is one of the strongest student sections on campus. It's its own mini-Maize Rage.
As mentioned, the team starts the season off against Nebraska in Nebraska's own back yard. The tournament is being hosted in Omaha, NE, just over an hour from Lincoln and the University of Nebraska. The CornHuskers take volleyball very seriously and will easily fill up 15,000 seats or more. The crowd will be hostile, but Michigan will be hoping to do the same thing they did to #10 Hawaii in 2007 by going up early and taking the crowd out of the game. A win over Nebraska isn't very likely, but if it would, it would be one heck of a statement to start the year. The game against Kansas State on Saturday will be a much bigger litmus test on just how ready this team is to compete past the Sweet 16 this year. If the Wolverines handle KSU, they will be serious contenders not only for the BigTen conference, but in the NCAA as well.
*AVCA Coaches Preseason Poll, they're #15 in Volleyball Magazine