University of Michigan Women’s Volleyball 2016 Midseason Report
I was planning on writing a report for this 2016 season’s University of Michigan women’s volleyball team as soon as I arrived home from attending their first match: a 3–0 sweep of Saint Louis in Cliff Keen Arena to open the second year of my family’s season tickets ownership. I realized, though, that I simply hadn’t seen enough.
The starting lineup looked very different from what I had seen in 2015, with Michigan having lost part-time and full-time starters in Caroline Knop (transferring sophomore, OH), Lindsey Lerg (graduating senior, L), Tiffany Morales (graduating senior, L), Carly Warner (graduating senior, S), and Krystalyn Goode (graduating senior, MB). CK had left for reasons unclear to me, becoming the starting L for a University of Florida team that may have Final Four aspirations. Lindsey Lerg and Tiffany Morales split time at L only to cede the position to Lindsey’s younger sister and dig extraordinaire, Jenna. Yet head coach Mark Rosen chose to reshuffle the roster in perhaps surprising ways.
Carly Skodjt returned from a promising true freshman season to start at OH, while Abby Cole remained in her new role as OPP for her final season, after which she’ll head to Michigan’s basketball team. As mentioned, Jenna Lerg claimed the L shirt, after an impressive true freshman season of her own. If I recall correctly, redshirt freshman and most-hyped social media presence Cori Crocker started at MB, although junior incumbent and high jump athlete Claire Kieffer-Wright split into her time for that position. The real surprises came for me with two true freshmen who I couldn’t even recognize: DS Tiffany Clark and S MacKenzi Welsh.
I have to say, I wasn’t impressed with either of those two true freshmen vs. St. Louis, and they still haven’t sold me, although each have made strides as this season’s progressed.
Tiffany Clark was clearly uncomfortable, despite the Eric Dickerson-esque amount of accessories assisting her, from the long wristbands over her long sleeves to the elbow pads underneath the sleeves to the (non-CK-style) headband. The opposition targeted her in the serve and on offense, and she was struggling to consistently pass and dig her way out. That said, Clark has looked more comfortable as she racks up more and more starts. Once she appears to fully integrate herself within the team, I’m sure she’ll play more consistently, especially in high-pressure situations.
I have to say I do enjoy watching Clark serve, as she uses this seemingly off-balance style I’ve never seen before, where she leans to one side after walking to one-foot, where she’ll often serve to the other direction. She often commits service errors, but I’ve noticed that the most dangerous servers usually do, probably because they rely on a high-risk, high-reward style to earn aces. Another thing Clark does on the serve that I’ve never seen before is an almost absurd rainbow hit, which she hits in such an extreme arch that I actually saw her get an ace once by clipping the top of the net on the way down. Maybe opponents will be able to handle it once they create the scouting report on Clark, but that rainbow is amusing to watch the every once in a while that Rosen makes the call.
As for Welsh, she stands 6'1" — women’s volleyball unfortunately often omits players’ weights, I guess out of gender norms, but she’s built impressively for a true freshman — and somehow beat out sophomore and Michigan legend Jim Abbott’s daughter Maddy Abbott for starting S. Rosen seemed like he was grooming Abbot last season to replace the long-serving Carly Warner, as he split their playing time a surprisingly even amount given Abbott was a true freshman and Warner a senior. I didn’t agree with it at the time, as Abbott seemed overrated, while Warner was such a special player to watch I’d place her in my all-time Wolverines women’s volleyball players I’ve seen roster. Apparently Abbott didn’t impress Rosen enough either, as he has stuck with Welsh from the start as not just the starting S, but the only S to get playing time.
Like I said, Welsh no doubt has a size advantage, but her actual setting has been inconsistent at best. I would go so far as to say setting is Michigan’s weakest attribute so far this season. Welsh does like to catch the defense by surprise a few times a game with quick turnaround hits, which she scores on more often than not, though she lacks an additional point-scoring option thanks to her pedestrian jumping top spin serve. I’m not sure why Rosen refuses to bring in Abbott for anything more than a serve; I would like to see what she does with the chance at S as a sophomore.
Then there’s the other starting freshman, Cori Crocker, who redshirted last season, during which she spent her game time encouraging her teammates with enthusiasm befitting a team captain. Her personality seems infectious, and so I can see her developing into the star after Abby Cole graduates this season. I’m not the only one; through the preseason and leading up to the first game, Michigan volleyball’s social media posts featured Crocker more often than any other player — unexpected considering she had not yet played a single point.
The question of what kind of player Crocker will develop into goes a long way towards forecasting Michigan’s future success. Even when the only glimpse I’d seen of her volleyball skills was in warmups for games she wouldn’t play in — and the dancing and jumping around she’d do on the sidelines during those games — I considered her the Wolverines’ most promising player. Her body is near my ideal for an NCAA Division I player: 6'3" and the most athletic on Michigan by far. It should only be up to Rosen and Crocker’s relationship as to how great she becomes.
The main things currently holding Crocker back are timing and technique, which she should develop as she (1) gains experience with the team and (2) is trained during practices. Dishearteningly, her playing time has only decreased as this season’s progressed, with the more experienced Claire Kieffer-Wright earning her starts and Abby Cole even playing MB in certain lineups when Rosen apparently wants to give other outside players some game time. This week was the most worrying of all, as Crocker did not appear for a single point in the 3–1 win vs. Maryland — during which even true freshman S from Puerto Rico Katerina Rocafort logged her second appearance of the season, in garbage time — and only briefly appeared in a high-importance 3–1 contest vs. arch-rival Ohio State. If Crocker quietly suffered an injury, I hope she completely recovers soon and approve of Rosen’s apparent decision not to damage her so early in her career. If Rosen has decided to favor experience in his playing time allocations, then he’s seriously gambling with the future of this team. I haven’t seen Crocker as playful on the sideline this week as she was last season, so either of those scenarios may harming her morale.
The rest of the front line may not be as spectacular as other ranked teams’ front lines, lacking a consistently explosive hitter and with the only unusually tall player moved to OPP, but they’ve performed fairly consistently. Abby Cole, standing at 6'5" and accordingly shouldered with everyone’s expectations of kills and blocks, actually seems to enjoy more success with a finesse game, favoring the slide play and often resorting to a tip over the opposing front line after facing resistance with direct hits. Rosen thankfully seems to be playing junior OH Adeja Lambert more often than he did last season: Lambert may not ever be the star, but she seems capable of more explosive hitting than any other OH I’ve seen on this Michigan team. I may as well mention junior OPP Katherine Mahlke as well, even though she seems to be playing even less often than last season, maybe because Cole is holding down more of her potential points, but who is capable of the unexpectedly hard hit from time to time — not to mention she’s the only left-handed player on the team.
Ideally, Rosen will develop Crocker and Skodjt into an intimidating MB-OH duo, while Jenna Lerg finishes the rest of her 3 years of eligibility as an increasingly remarkable L, racking up the starts and finding more spots in the Michigan record book for digs. I’m not confident that Tiffany Clark and MacKenzi Welsh will develop into a great DS and S respectively, and who knows who Michigan’s OPP of the future will be, but the aforementioned trio could be exciting enough to watch.
Michigan occupies a difficult position in the mighty B1G when it comes to women’s volleyball, only having won the conference and made it to the Final Four once — on separate occasions — and generally hovering around the lower limits of the national top 25, not even guaranteed a national tournament appearance every season despite playing in the best conference. I don’t foresee any significant success for Michigan’s current players, but I do hope they continue to make the tournament like last season and build on each year’s results.
I’ve chosen not to quote or analyze any statistics in this midseason report because unfortunately not every women’s volleyball team — even B1G teams, let alone the rest of DI — publish their player statistics, rendering any comparison incomplete. I would definitely appreciate a women’s volleyball sabermetrics scene to apply from, but I don’t think this sport has fostered such a scene publicly.
I also realize this isn’t the exact midpoint of the season, but it’s close enough: Michigan just completed their 18th game of the season and have 14 remaining until the conference and then (hopefully) national tournament. I’ve attended 5 of those — the 3–0 win vs. Saint Louis to open the season and Michigan Invitational; the 3–0 win vs. Auburn to open the Michigan Challenge; the 0–3 loss vs. #1 Nebraska to open the B1G conference schedule against the defending national champions; the 3–1 win vs. Iowa the next day as the Michigan-Penn State football game was ending; and the 3–1 win vs. Maryland this past Friday — and plan on attending as many more home games as I can. Go Blue!