By Brad Rudner
Q: How will the new-look Wolverines fare in the toughest conference in collegiate volleyball?
If you come to Cliff Keen Arena this fall and see some faces on the court that don't look all too familiar, don't be alarmed. Between graduating, retaining and recruiting, it's just college athletics at work. Like their neighbors at the U-M Soccer Stadium are also realizing, even the most beloved student-athletes have to graduate sometime.
On a roster that only features 15 athletes, losing five seniors can be a big deal. Gone are two former All-Americans (Lexi Erwin, Jennifer Cross), one former All-Region pick (Molly Toon) and two defensive specialists (Ally Sabol, Brittany Lee). If Michigan is to make its ninth consecutive appearance in the NCAA Tournament at season's end, their replacements will need to get acclimated quickly.
One of the biggest strengths of this team should be its defense. The Wolverines are formidable up the middle with blockers Krystalyn Goode and Abby Cole and defensive specialists Tiffany Morales and Lindsey Lerg. But every good team needs a good attack, especially in the Big Ten, and that's where the biggest question mark remains.
Not to cross-compare sports too much, but each volleyball team needs a quarterback on the court. Luckily, Michigan has one of the conference's best in setter Lexi Dannemiller. An AVCA All-America honorable mention last season, Dannemiller is the only senior on the squad and will be the one piloting the ship from the get-go. From an experience standpoint, the team is hers to run. She'll be relied upon to start the offense for her new outside hitters, who are likely to include juniors Ally Davis and Kelly Murphy.
There is some experience there (Murphy has played in 43 career games, while Davis has played in 39), but after spending much of their first two years learning from the likes of Erwin and Toon, they're finally ready for starring roles. Reinforcements and depth arrive in the form of a four-member recruiting class (five if you count redshirt freshman Cindy Zhou) that was ranked No. 7 in the nation by both PrepVolleyball.com and Volleyball Magazine.
The schedule, though, is daunting and without question one of the nation's most difficult. The Wolverines play seven of their first 10 conference matches on the road and must play several Big Ten powerhouses twice, including Penn State and Wisconsin (both made last year's Final Four), Nebraska, Michigan State and Illinois.
Some growing pains are to be expected with this gauntlet of a schedule, but expect this largely unproven team to improve with each passing week. With three Sweet Sixteens, one Elite Eight and one Final Four in the last eight years alone, head coach Mark Rosen has consistently shown that his teams are built for long postseason runs, with or without any seeding or national recognition. Should this group make the Field of 64 at the end of the year -- their RPI ought to be up there with the best -- they'd be a battle-tested team that nobody would want to play.
Key Player: Lexi Dannemiller. The most experienced player on the squad, Dannemiller will not only be relied upon to set up the offensive attack, but also lead when the going gets tough.
Key Competition: Sept. 30 vs. Michigan State. As if you needed any more, these two in-state rivals will take the court at Crisler Center. Strangely, the road team has won the last four regular-season meetings, a trend the Wolverines are hoping to buck.
Key Number: Nine -- the number of ranked teams on the schedule. Nearly half of the matches on the schedule will come against teams ranked in the preseason top 25 (14 of 30).
Contact: Kent Reichert