HOUGHTON - It's hard to put expectations on a volleyball team with new coaches, a key leader returning to the lineup and several impact freshmen, but Michigan Tech certainly feels underestimated by Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference preseason coaches' poll that picked the Huskies 15th of 16 conference teams.
"I chuckled inside a little bit," first-year Tech coach Matt Jennings said. "I could totally understand there were zero conference wins last year, however, they haven't been in our gym the last two weeks. Period."
Jennings and his assistant Nic Paquiz have spent fall practice implementing an up-tempo style that has pushed players to their limit, while maintaining a positive atmosphere.
"They've had a lot of knowledge and a lot of information thrown at them over a short period of time, and to be honest, I'm very happy with their ability to apply it so far," Jennings said after Wednesday's final preseason practice. "The leaders are taking accountability for things and freshmen are starting to feel a little bit less like freshmen."
Tech will look to its three captains - Madeline Haben, Jordanna Kero and Skylar Paffenroth - for leadership, and according to Jennings, each brings a different personality and approach to their captaincy.
Haben, a junior, will be the Huskies' anchor at setter.
"As a setter, you naturally have that leadership role, but now off the court stuff I'm responsible for a lot more, and I take a lot more on," Haben said. "I take (the captain role) very seriously, and I'm grateful that I have that."
She returned to the team in January after leaving the team "for personal reasons" after playing just five sets in the 2011 season.
"I had taken care of the things I needed to take care of and coming back to a new start for myself was really refreshing," said Haben, who had played in all 117 sets in 2009 and in 25 of 26 matches in 2010.
She appreciates the new faster style, and she and Jennings both believe it will fit well with Tech's relatively short but athletic roster.
"It's exciting. It's going to be a different season. I'm confident in that. I know it's going to be positive," Haben said. "We're focusing on the process, which is what we need to do. That's the only thing we can do, and I know the outcome is going to take care of itself."
Jennings said Haben "keeps the team marching" and focused on the task, while Kero, a junior from Hancock, is Tech's "consummate all-around organizer" and go-to outside hitter.
"We're really excited to compete and have a fresh start," said Kero. "I think energy is high, which is a lot different from how we ended last year."
Paffenroth, the Huskies' lone senior, would have battled Haben and Ciara Sebelius for playing time at setter until an ACL tear put an end to her season before it started. But Jennings still wants her to fill an active role on the team as a mentor and veteran leader.
"Her attitude is impeccable," Jennings said.
Haben and Kero will certainly start for the Huskies, but Jennings has also named his other starters, at least for now. Kienna Sharp will start in the middle while Shelby Jones will start outside. After that, three freshmen will contribute immediately.
"The chemistry is great. It's better than anyone expected, especially since we have so many newcomers that are right on the court," Kero said.
Jacqueline Aird will start at libero, Aubrey Havlichek will start outside and 6-foot-2 Sylvie Rokosh - one of only two Huskies 6 feet or taller - will join Sharp in the middle.
"Really watch out for Aubrey Havlichek and Jackie Aird this year," Jennings said. "Those two have just come in like a shark in bloody water, ready to hunt."
Rokosh is more raw as a player than the other two freshmen, but with her parents being former Olympic rowers and her size, her sport-specific skill will grow to match her athleticism.
Jennings is confident in the starters and will allow them time to work through any issues that arise before introducing changes, but he's still flexible to a point.
Andria Nyenhuis and Abby DeWitt will contribute in the front row off the bench, while Tessa Mauer will be the primary back row substitute.
Sebelius has the team's best serve, according to Jennings, so she will add value there and as Haben's back-up. Defensive specialists Sarah Rasmussen and Lisa Diduch and right-side hitter Janelle Rupkalvis will also vie for time.
"Everyone is always going to have an opportunity to show themselves, her teammates and me something," he said. "I'm always going to put in a lineup that I think gives us the best chance to compete."
And competing is really what Tech is hoping to do - not win a certain amount of matches, not win the conference - just compete and improve. "We want to compete at a higher level every week than the week before it," Jennings said.
This week, Tech will finally have a chance to gauge progress against another opponent when it starts the regular season with four matches at the Crimson Hawk Invitational in Indiana, Penn.
"This weekend, we have four teams I think we should be able to compete with, regardless of where we're playing them," Jennings said.
Tech flew out of the Houghton County Airport around 5 a.m. this morning and opens the season at 9:30 Friday morning against Roberts Wesleyan and 7:30 p.m. against Cedarville.
Saturday, the Huskies will play the hosts IUP at 10:30 a.m. before closing out the weekend at 2 p.m. against Coker.
Tech might as well get used to the road because the Huskies will be on it a lot in the first month of the season. The Huskies will head to Spearfish, S.D. next weekend before opening GLIAC play Sept. 14 at Lake Superior State. They'll play five straight conference matches away from home before finally returning home to the friendly confines of the SDC Gym on Sept. 29 against Wayne State.
They'll mix home and road matches much of October before concluding the season with five straight home matches.
"There's no doubt that being on the road for a month is not easy for any team, especially one that's applying a new system," Jennings said.
"If we survive that first half, grow as a team and have a series of home games, that could work out really well. It starts on Friday and we have to take each match as it comes."