Wednesday, August 24, 2011

2011 Michigan Volleyball Preview

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.

Senior captain Sloane Donhoff.


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.

Old Lexi.

New Lexi.


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.


Optimism abounds!

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!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Déjà vu sans Goaltender

Fool me once but you won’t fool me twice. Well John, you fooled us twice. The recent de-commitment of incoming freshmen goalie, John Gibson, reminds Michigan fans that an eighteen-year-olds-mind can change in a flash. This is the second straight year Michigan hockey has lost a high profile goalie prospect to the Ontario Hockey League after Jack Campbell went to Windsor last year. Gibson’s de-commitment is even worse because it comes about a month before school starts. When Campbell left to sign elsewhere, it at least left Michigan almost a full season to recruit a new player. Now the coaching staff must scramble if they want to replace Gibson. Most likely Red Berenson will seek a third string goalie (maybe Patrick Summers or someone from the United States Hockey Leagues) then recruit a top prospect for next season. For the time being, Michigan’s NCAA tournament hopes hinge on Hunwick’s health. If that fails, we should hope Adam Janecyk is the second coming of Shawn.

One might (reasonably) ask what is to stop this happening for a third year in a row next year. The reason why is playing time. With Shawn Hunwick graduating at the end of the season, the starting job will be open to any top prospect who wants it. But wouldn’t Gibson get those minutes if he came? Yes, but not until next season. That, and several reasons are why Gibson signed with the Kitchener Rangers. Gibson would have had to fight for playing time with a fifth year senior this year. Kitchener offer more playing time with a better chance of becoming the starter this year. Since being draft by Anaheim in the 2nd round this year’s draft, the NHL dream probably feels closer now. Anaheim probably talked to him about how the OHL has many things to prepare him for the major league: the story of more games, a more NHL-like style of play, more focus on hockey and less on academics, and lastly, he can sign with the Ducks and still play for his junior team, something he couldn’t do in the NCAA.

Gibson should have known all these facts before his commitment to a college program. He knew what Michigan had to offer and what the OHL was all about. He knew he was going to be a high draft choice too. Yes, the USA development program prevents players from signing with an OHL team while they are on the team but his season was over in May. Granted May isn’t much more time to find a replacement but it is better than now. If Gibson thought he wanted to do juniors, he should have de-committed like Campbell back in November before signing day. It is more disheartening that Gibson signed a letter of intent to play for Michigan; a promise to close his recruiting to other colleges and indirectly OHL teams. In the past two weeks 5 players including Gibson have chosen to join OHL teams over their respective college commitments. The alarming part is not the defects; there are a handful of players every year, but the number of top prospects in a short period. It is well over a month past the draft where most de-commitments occur. A player is taken higher than expected, feels the need to fast track to the NHL then jumps to juniors. In all five cases, these players were drafted in their expected range.

The frustrating part: how to stop these poachers. Answer: there really isn't a way yet. The NCAA considers the Canadian junior leagues professional leagues. Athletes playing a second in a OHL game are automatically ineligible to play in the NCAA, but Athletes can leave anytime from the NCAA to join the junior ranks. Once a college loses the recruit, he is lost. Michigan can just sell their school in the best possible way and recruit honest and respectful players. One area college hockey can work on is NHL executives. There is this growing impression that if you are a highly drafted American prospect, you have to play juniors to develop quicker. NHL general managers are encouraging these de-commitments late in the off season. Canadian juniors do not fast track one to the NHL. It just gives an earlier time for NHL teams to sign the player for cheaper, and it gives the young star a nice signing bonus. Very few players, even first rounders make it to the NHL at 18 or 19 years. They are usually signed at age 20 and spend a couple of years in the minor league. Many players are 22 or 23 by the time they are in the NHL full time. An age where college players have or are about to graduate. If you google Josh Unice or Brandon Maxwell, you will find two former American goalies who committed to colleges then backed out to sign with Kitchener. They are no closer to the NHL than John Gibson is. On the other hand, John Gibson is no closer to a world class education than Unice and Maxwell.

by John Zaccardelli