HOUGHTON - The Michigan Tech volleyball team had 10 more wins last year than the year before, but still the Huskies finished well under .500 at 12-19. Now, though, in the second year under coach Matt Jennings, and with all starters returning, hopes are high as Tech kicks off its 2013 season today.
"When I first got here, it was about not only getting them to believe in themselves, but to love the game again, and trust me and themselves," Jennings said. "Now, they don't need to be reminded of their ability, it's about getting better.
" I've never coached a team that was this on board collectively, starting from our leaders down to our third-string setter. It's been phenomenal. They're ready to play, and our leaders have them marching in the right direction."
Jordanna Kero of Michigan Tech goes on the attack during a 2012 match as teammates Jackie Aird, left, and Shelby Jones, right, look on. Kero and the Huskies begin the 2013 season today in a tournament at Winona (Minn.)?State. (DMG photo by David Archambeau)
In terms of leadership, it all starts with senior setter Maddie Haben, who Jennings said shows a level of determination he's never seen before.
"For our entire team, and especially me, you say you play every year the same, but I'm not going to lie, this year does mean a little extra for me, and I think it has motivated me in other areas to leave it all on the floor every day, because I know my days are numbered. That's now a reality for me," Haben said.
The same is true for Jordanna Kero, Tech's other captain, a Hancock native and a senior outside hitter.
"It's crazy how your perspective changes as a senior," she said. "You need to play with a sense of urgency because it is your last year, but at the same time not taking a single day or practice for granted. We have very high expectations this year, a lot of depth and a lot of talent. We've raised the bar and the standard from last year, and we're all very excited to get this season started."
It all starts today for the Huskies with 9 a.m. and 3:15 p.m. matches against Minnesota State Moorhead and Upper Iowa, respectively, at the Winona State Tournament. Jennings admits to going in blind to the two matches, focusing instead on his team's development. The Huskies wrap up the tournament Saturday against St. Joseph's and the host squad Winona State.
All four of the matches this weekend are non-conference matches, but the results do factor into regional rankings, which Tech hopes to be in the conversation for at season's end.
"If we hold our own in the (Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference), win a couple matches up front, we ought to be in the conversation - that's our goal," Jennings said.
Tech's regular lineup will be familiar to fans, with Haben of course at setter, and junior Shelby Jones and sophomore Sylvie Rokosh leading the attack.
"Maddie, Sylvie and Shelby will probably be the most visible contributors in the same way you saw last year," Jennings said, "just doing the little things better."
Aubrey Havlichek, who had her labrum repaired in the offseason, will play left side, while Jackie Aird will be relied on heavily as a defensive specialist - and both are just sophomores. Andria Nyenhuis and Kienna Sharp are expected to play larger roles offensively as well.
Several freshmen are also expected to contribute regularly, though not as originally anticipated. Kendall Ward, a 6-foot-2 outside hitter will be out of action likely until conference play with a sore shoulder, but Rachel Pohlod, who came in as a potential successor to Haben, has proved herself too valuable elsewhere.
"Having coached (Pohlod) before, I was well aware of her athleticism, but I had really forgotten about the way she can hit. She can hit outside, she can hit rightside," Jennings said. "She's going to play a significant role as a freshman, and not be our setter."
Freshman Jonna Villemure has impressed in the back-up setter role.
Defensive specialists Sarah Rasmussen and Tessa Mauer will rotate in, and freshman hitter Aubrey Ficek, who has "undoubtedly our best serve," according to Jennings, will be a serving specialist initially.
"Our strength right now is our cohesion," Haben said. "We're playing well as a group, and that's the foundation. I think one thing we have to work on, and we will - it's our main focus this season - is a next-play mentality. If it's a poor play, we're moving on; if it's a good play, we're moving on."
Keeping that even keel will be important for Tech, which still wants to keep a fast tempo in Jennings' system.
"I think it'll be really exciting on a lot of different levels," Haben said. "From a fan's perspective, our last couple home weekends were awesome to watch, and I think people can expect more of that."
Tech, which was picked seventh in the GLIAC North Division preseason coaches' poll, plays its home-opening weekend on Sept. 20 and 21 against Lake Superior State and Saginaw Valley State. Kids are still welcome to apply for the expanding Little Huskies program.
"The support from the community was awesome last year, and we know that'll continue this year," Haben said. "We have great coaches, very highly motivated players - we are all on board. We're ready to go, we have a new culture for the program, and that's very exciting in itself."