By Lincoln Arneal
Morgan Burke has never lost a match in the Devaney Center.
In her four years at Omaha Skutt High School, Burke was part of four state championship teams, three of which she claimed on the homecourt of the Nebraska volleyball team.
When she returns this week as Michigan’s starting setter, Burke will face a much stiffer challenge than she faced against Elkhorn North, Norris and Omaha Duchesne. The Wolverines will face the top-ranked and undefeated Huskers on Friday at 8 p.m.
“It’s always such a cool experience just to have all my family and friends around and to just come back to my home state,” Burke said. “I’m super excited.”
Michigan (7-18, 5-11) enters the match having won four of its last five matches, losing only to No. 19 Penn State.
The key to the turnaround is clear to NU coach John Cook.
“They’re playing a Nebraska girl at setter and that’s been the change,” he said. “Otherwise, it’s the same players.”
The Wolverines have also been boosted by the return of senior libero Hannah Grant, but Burke has sparked the offense and helped turn around their season.
Burke arrived in Ann Arbor in July, eager to learn the intricacies of college volleyball and get to know the program’s leaders. She committed to the Wolverines in 2021 and stuck with them during the offseason after Mark Rosen was fired after 24 years as the UM head coach. In his place, Michigan named Erin Virtue, an assistant coach for the U.S. National Team, to take over the program.
“It was a bit of a shock when I found out all coaches were fired, but I’m so grateful that it’s Erin who’s my coach,” Burke said. “She is a person I look up to and such a role model for all of us, with what she’s accomplished in her career and how she tries to train us.”
Burke said the game’s speed was an initial challenge as she adjusted to college life and dealt with being far from home. During the first few weeks of the season, she split time with senior setter Scottee Johnson as the Wolverines tinkered with their offensive system, but the upperclassman soon took over as the lone setter.
Michigan floundered during the nonconference, going 2-7 with its two wins coming against Sacred Heart and North Carolina. The Wolverines also had to endure a couple of weeks without their head coach as Virtue went to Europe to help the U.S. National Team qualify for the 2024 Olympics.
Burke said that time without Virtue was challenging, but the assistant coaches stepped up, and the leaders on the team kept the group together.
While her goal this season was to be the starter, Burke said she knew that not many freshmen get to see the court initially. She wanted to be the best teammate possible if she was on the bench.
Burke appeared in nine of the Wolverines’ first 16 matches, but she kept working on her connections with her teammates in practice and refining her fundamentals.
Her opportunity came in the first set against Indiana. Burke entered the game with the Hoosiers leading 20-8 with Michigan looking for a spark. She could not spark a rally but did give the offense a boost.
Throughout the season, Virtue had prepared her for the starting role, which helped get Burke mentally ready for the opportunity.
“It was a great feeling just that my coaches and my teammates all trusted in me to help run the offense from the start,” she said. “That helped take that pressure off and just go out there having fun playing for my teammates and my team and showing them what I can do.”
Burke started the next match against in-state rival Michigan State and posted a double-double with 25 assists and 17 digs. In the eight matches since taking over the starting job, she is averaging 9.7 assists per set.
The most important win for the Wolverines was a four-set victory over traditional rival Ohio State that was broadcast on Fox. Burke called that match “amazing.”
“I think we all just rallied together,” she said. “That’s a big rivalry match for us, obviously. It was one of those things like we’re not losing, especially on our home court.”
Even while staying busy in Michigan, the schedule allowed Burke and her parents to watch Skutt win its ninth straight state championship on their phones while they were out for dinner in Ann Arbor.
Burke will get more time with her family this weekend. The Wolverines were scheduled to fly to Nebraska Thursday night and she was planning to spend time with her loved ones Thursday night and Friday before the match. They won’t get much time after the match as Michigan plays at Illinois on Sunday.
Her cheering section will be large in Devaney, with around 40 family and friends requesting tickets. Burke told her teammates about her perfect record on the court, but no matter the outcome of the match, she was looking forward to being in the middle of the atmosphere.
“It’s such a surreal experience,” she said. “I grew up watching Husker volleyball so it will be awesome just to come back and play, obviously not for Nebraska but on the opposing side. So much history has been built there through Skutt and playing state there. It’s just such a cool experience even to be able to go back there.”