Michigan coach Mark Rosen stood silently on the sideline with his arms folded, leaning against the scorer’s table, watching the court.
The 14th-year head coach knew.
He knew that down 24-22 in the fourth set, with the Michigan volleyball team struggling to gain momentum, the Wolverines would work their way out of the predicament. He knew that for all of the No. 9 Louisville’s excitement, there was a team waiting to take it away.
Channeling their experience from knocking off then No. 6 Stanford in the 2011 NCAA Tournament, Michigan defeated the tournament-host Cardinals in four sets, 25-15, 22-25, 25-22, 27-25, to return to the Sweet 16. With the victory, the Wolverines earned a third-round berth for the sixth time in seven years.
“I never even thought about a fifth set,” Rosen said. “I felt pretty comfortable even though we were down, that the way were playing, we were playing pretty well. I felt pretty good about the way we could come back and win that set.”
Rosen knew that after leading their team to victory over Tennessee on Thursday night, junior outside hitters Lexi Erwin and Molly Toon would once again carry the team’s offense. The duo combined for 43 kills and over half of Michigan’s points in dominating fashion.
The Wolverines began the first set tied at nine before using a 5-0 run to pull away. Toon immediately made her presence known in the first set, accounting for six kills on eight swings.
Sophomore Lexi Dannemiller, recognizing the smaller blocker from Louisville matching up against Toon, often found the hitter waiting to put the ball down and away from the Cardinals. Ahead 18-12, Toon’s two kills capped a 4-0 run that sealed the first set for Michigan.
“Toon is playing great right now,” Rosen said. “But (her) emergence in the last month has really been a huge catalyst for us. She’s been a workhorse for us. She’s getting a ton of kills, she made some great defensive plays today and she’s just a heck of an athlete.”
The veteran coach was prepared for the Cardinals to come back stronger in the second set after being out-hit in the first. With Michigan leading 16-11 in the middle of the set, Louisville began a 6-0 run that sucked the energy from the Wolverines. A 4-1 run later in the set allowed the Cardinals to head into the locker room tied at a set apiece.
But the Wolverines quickly returned to form.
The third set progressed slowly, until Dannemiller began to spread the ball around. With a 11-7 lead built up, Michigan amassed a 4-0 run, capped by a kill from Rosen’s lone senior, right-side hitter Claire McElheny. McElheny added another kill to stretch the lead to 18-12 before the Wolverines hung on to win the third set.
McElheny, a fifth-year senior who has been to an NCAA Tournament game every season, accounted for 12 kills and five blocks on the night. But more importantly, her experience to make the pass when needed kept her team calm and confident.
“I think tonight we were a lot more balanced,” McElheny said. “They didn’t know who to come after because everyone was on fire.”
Dannemiller, though, was the driving force behind Michigan’s offense. Falling just two assists short of her career-high 64, the Wolverines’ passing leader consistently found the ball. Dannemiller added 16 digs, one behind team-leader freshman libero Tiffany Morales, for her second-consecutive double-double.
Neither team was able to set up momentum in fourth set, as Louisville clung to its waning moments of the season. Both teams traded points until the Cardinals went on a 4-1 run to take a 19-14 lead. Michigan fought its way back, yet faced a 22-24 deficit and a looming fifth set.
“I think it’s really easy to play to not go to a fifth,” Erwin said. “But I think our mindset kind of changed when we were playing to win and not to lose. I think we just became so much more aggressive.”
But Rosen and the Wolverines were patient, as Toon quickly set her feet, leapt and wound up with three kills as part of a 5-0 run to win the game.
The late-season surge that secured a tournament birth, the one that toppled three ranked teams, responsible for the growth of a young squad, continued.
“I’m really proud of our team on how they fought tonight,” Rosen said. “A really emotional match. It came down to a lot of tactical things, because it was such long sets. It shows a lot of character on our team’s part.”
When it all was said and done, Rosen smiled.
After all, he knew.