After a 23-10 effort and a program-best fourth-place Big Ten finish in 2010, the Michigan volleyball team returns to action ranked #24 in the country in 2011, but with a major hole to fill. The Wolverines lose their all-time greatest player in four-time AVCA All-America setter Lexi Zimmerman, and will have to replace her while turning to senior captains Alex Hunt and Sloane Donhoff to lead the team through the toughest conference in the NCAA.
Senior captain Alex Hunt.
Lexi Zimmerman, defensive specialist Maggie Busch, and right side hitter Amanda Yerke are gone from the 2010 Wolverines. Zimmerman is clearly the major loss here, as Yerke played sparingly, and while a solid contributor, Maggie Busch can be replaced by Ally Sabol and Brittany Lee.
Michigan has three incoming freshmen in 2011. Walk-on middle blocker Olivia Reed will almost certainly see very limited playing time this season, as the Wolverines are solid at her position. Under Armor All-American Lauren Teknipp, a 6-2 MB from McDonough, GA should have a better chance of seeing the court, and she comes in as one of Michigan's higher rated recruits in recent years. The most important incoming freshman, though, is the confusingly-named Lexi Dannemiller, a 5-11 setter from West Chester, OH. An Under Armor All-American in 2010, she is the odds-on favorite to win the setting job this season, a job she'll compete for with junior Catherine Yager. Expectations are sky-high for Dannemiller, who perhaps cruelly will be asked to live up to the bar set by the Lexi she replaces.
As mentioned, Michigan should be solid up the middle this season. Sophomore Jennifer Cross, a unanimous 2010 All-Big Ten Freshman selection, led the squad with 111 blocks last season, and will also look to improve upon her impressive 2.31 kills/set and .316 hitting percentage marks. Cross' development will be key for the Wolverines this season - she's already in my estimation Michigan's third-best player, and is far from reaching her potential. Cross is joined by 6-3 fifth-year senior Karlee Bruck, who hit an impressive .328% last season. 6-4 senior Courtney Fletcher rounds out a very solid MB stable for Michigan. Fletcher hit .280% last season and registered 68 total blocks.
The outside and right side hitting positions will be critical for Michigan this season. With a new setter in the middle, developing a rhythm and relationship will be crucial, and outside of Alex Hunt, question marks abound. Hunt, a unanimous 2011 All-Big Ten Preseason selection and 2010 All-American, will be once again asked to carry the load from the OH position. She registered 503 kills in 2010, good for 4.41 K/S, and will look to improve upon her .255 hitting percentage. She has the potential to go down as one of Michigan's all-time greats with another big year. On the right side, redshirt junior Claire McElheny needs to have another strong campaign, following up on her 2.25 K/S mark and .262 hitting percentage from last season. How well Michigan performs this year may well turn on the ability of sophomores Molly Toon and Lexi Erwin to make big leaps from last year. Each hit at disappointing low clips, and their development will be something to watch. So much of the success of this season depends on the ability of the new setter to click with her hitters, something we won't really be able to gauge until a few matches into the season.
Senior captain Sloane Donhoff started all 33 games last season at libero for Michigan, and all expectations are that she'll do the same this season. Donhoff is fifth all-time at Michigan in digs, and like Hunt, could end her 2011 campaign amongst Michigan's best ever. Sophomore Ally Sabol will continue to serve as Donhoff's back-up, and will come on as a substitute to serve frequently.
2011 will mark coach Mark Rosen's 13th year behind the helm for Michigan. 239-152 in his career in Ann Arbor, Rosen is Michigan's all-time winningest coach, taking the Wolverine program to new heights during his tenure. Assistant coach Amanda Ault left after last season to take the head coaching position at George Washington University, and she has been replaced by former Cincinnati assistant Erin Virtue, who coached liberos and setters for the Bearcats.
Full schedule lives here.
Michigan's 2010 season was a tale of two teams. 12-1 at Cliff Keen, Michigan struggled to a 5-9 mark away from Ann Arbor, so of course Michigan begins the season with three straight tournaments on the road. The Wolverines will be tested by Morehead State and Cal Poly early on, and a good early season indicator of where the team stands will come at the Dayton Marriott Flyer Classic, with a solid field headlined by #19 Dayton, and rounded out by #26 Pepperdine and #30 Florida State. Michigan returns home to host the Michigan/adidas Invitational September 16-17, and B1G play begins the following weekend in Indiana at the Hoosiers and Boilermakers.
The Big Ten will be stronger than it ever has been before, boasting seven teams ranked in the preseason Top 25, including #1 and four-time defending national champions Penn State, and B1G newcomers in #5 Nebraska. Illinois (#8), Minnesota (#12), Purdue (#13), Ohio State (#21), and Michigan (#24) are also ranked. Last season Michigan went 12-8 in conference for a fourth-place finish, but they'll face an uphill battle to repeat or surpass that mark this season. Marquee games will be Nebraska's first trip to Ann Arbor on October 1, and trips to Illinois, Penn State, and Minnesota.
Nebraska will find Cliff Keen, er, quaint.
Though they lose a heck of a lot with the departure of Lexi Zimmerman, the Wolverines return tons of talent in 2011. The question is how well Coach Rosen and Co. can harness that talent while breaking in a new setter, all the while facing an extremely tough conference slate.
I think Lexi Dannemiller will cement herself as the starting setter for this squad, much like Zimmerman did her freshman year, and while she may not equal the AVCA All-America Honorable Mention the Great One posted in her first year in Ann Arbor, we should expect a very strong showing for the touted frosh. Molly Toon will have a breakout year as a compliment to Alex Hunt, and Jennifer Cross will have an All-Big Ten-type season as a sophomore. My gut says that Michigan will emerge from non-conference play with an 11-1 record - expect a loss somewhere in the Dayton tournament.
Here's where I go out on a massive limb, and maybe's it's because I'm a senior, and maybe it's because I fashion myself as the "Official Voice" of Michigan volleyball and want a fun season ahead, but I'm going to boldly predict that this Michigan team registers its finest Big Ten campaign yet and goes 13-7 in conference. Michigan only plays 5 conference road games against teams ranked higher than them, and I expect the Cliff Keen dominance to continue in 2011. A 13-7 mark won't win them the Big Ten, but it will make for the best B1G regular season finish in program history, and serve as a springboard from which to dive into the NCAA tournament with a 24-8 overall record.
Be sure to get out to Cliff Keen this season and support Michigan volleyball!