By JACK VANASSCHE, Staff Writer
Given one word to describe his team’s season as a whole, head coach Eric Stark said it best.
In 2014, when Stark first took over the University of Michigan-Dearborn volleyball team, the Wolverines could not find a way to win.
The Wolverines lost every single game that year, going 0-32 overall and finishing last in the Wolverine-Hoosier Athletic Conference.
Last season, in 2015, the team showed growth in their 6-27 overall campaign, and they even won a conference game (1-21 WHAC), but were still at the bottom of the standings.
This year, the Wolverines took the next step forward and posted a 9-20 overall record and went 2-14 in the conference.
“We worked on our identity,” said Stark. “I thought we took a lot of steps forward.
From 2014 to now, we are a better team. From August 2016 to November 2016, we are a much better team.”
Out of the gate, the Wolverines marched out to 7-4 record thanks in large part to a dominant performance at the Husson Invitational in Maine where the Wolverines rattled off five consecutive victories to take first place.
In their first conference game of the season, the Wolverines dug deep and pulled out a road victory in four sets on Marygrove’s home court.
As the team found themselves in the thick of conference play, the Wolverines were often overmatched in terms of size and occasionally in talent but never in heart.
Near the home stretch of the season in October, after suffering four straight conference losses, Stark decided a lineup change could do the team some good.
The result: a more balanced team attack with an improved defense that found wins where they could.
With their season winding down, the Wolverines hosted No. 18-ranked Madonna for the last home game of the year. Despite the talent that powerhouse Madonna had on the court that night, the Wolverines played them for everything they had.
A first set victory for UM-Dearborn over the nationally-ranked Crusaders showcased the potential within the squad. Although they would go on to lose the match, the Wolverines had proven that they were not a team to be taken lightly.
Stark said the team’s response to the lineup change was the most promising moment of the year for the Wolverines, even more so than the tournament victory earlier in the season.
“It could have been a make-or-break point in our season, really. We responded; our play got much more consistent from every match there on out—all the way until we took the set from Madonna.”
Team MVP: Briann Alspaugh
In her first season with the team after a transfer from Saint Clair County Community College, junior Briann Alspaugh made an immediate impact for the Wolverines in 2016.
Her 6-foot-1-inch build added much needed size up front for a Michigan-Dearborn team with just one other player over 6-feet tall.
Her talent on the court was even more impressive, as Alspaugh averaged nearly six kills per game and tallied 48 total blocks on the year.
Most importantly, she was a leader.
“Not only was she one of our most physical players,” said Stark, “but she was a vocal leader from day one. That can be tough because this was her first season with the team.”
Most Improved: Raechel Warchock
In her fourth and final season with the Wolverines, Warchock made it tough for opposing hitters to find the floor.
Warchock was moved to the libero position during the team’s October lineup shuffle and the payoff was immediate.
A huge second half propelled Warchock to finish the year with a team-leading 267 digs (up from 199 last year) and averaged 9.2 digs per match (up from 6.03 last year).
Freshman of the Year: Daniella Barile
Barile came onto the UM-Dearborn squad ready to play in her first year with the team. Her consistency at the setter position was a crucial factor in the Wolverines’ offensive scheme.
Barile averaged 23.7 assists per match in 2016, aided by a season-high 47 assists in a victory over Maine-Fort Kent at the Husson Invitational.
The Wolverines are in the best position they have been at the end of a season in some time.
Only three seniors will be leaving the team. Libero Raechel Warchock, outside hitter Colby DeMare, and Amanda Smolinski, who missed the 2016 season with an injury, will not be back next year.
As for the remaining Wolverines, they have a promising winter ahead of them to prepare for next season.
“I’m excited for this winter,” said Stark. “It will be the first non-traditional season where we’ve actually had players to account for all positions.”
Stark said that a major goal of this season is to bolster the roster size with incoming recruits to help promote competition from within.
Playing with strength, speed and physicality will be what Stark hopes to drill into his team as he looks to hopefully bring the team to a .500 record next season for the first time since 2007.