When junior middle blocker Jennifer Cross began the season, she had reason to be concerned.
While playing with the Canadian National team in the Pan Am Games last summer, the Scarborough, Ont. native not only sprained her ankle but also tore two muscles around it. As the Michigan volleyball team’s leader in blocks during the 2011 season, Cross was vital to a team lacking experience and would be needed to make any run at the postseason.
But you wouldn’t have known that on Friday night in the Wolverines’ straight-set sweep of Michigan State in the Sweet 16 in Berkeley, Calif. Cross looked like a player that never missed a beat this season.
Instead, she looked like a veteran who knew when to swing at the ball, jump to knock the ball back down and even serve the ball between defenders. She paid little attention to playing in a win-or-go-home situation, thousands of miles away from Ann Arbor — against Michigan’s in-state conference rivals no less.
Behind Cross, the Wolverines took down the Spartans in three sets, 25-16, 26-24, 26-24, to advance to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament for the second time in school history and the first time since 2009. It was Michigan’s second-straight win over its in-state rival after losing in October. The Wolverines advance to play No. 2 Stanford, a team they knocked off in last year’s NCAA Tournament to advance to the Sweet 16, on Saturday.
“The last month and a half (or) two months, we’ve been playing really good volleyball,” said Michigan coach Mark Rosen. “I’m pleased with how we’re playing and I know we still have a little more left in us. We’ve been able to keep our lineup pretty stable for the past couple months and I think that’s been a huge key I think for us.”
Cross, who finished with 12 kills and five blocks, was complemented by junior outside hitter Lexi Erwin’s 17 kills. The duo combined for two-thirds of the Wolverines’ points, many of which came from Michigan State’s execution of shutting down junior outside hitter Molly Toon.
Michigan has been reliant on just a pair of hitters during the postseason, forcing Cross to fill the role. The veteran middle blocker accounted for 10 kills in the first two sets, leaving the Spartans on their heels, wondering how to adjust.
“When they take something away, something else is going to be open,” Rosen said. “One of our biggest goals throughout the year is to be balanced. If one person either has a tough night, or the other team decides they want to take that person out, then we have to be able to adjust and go exploit that somewhere else.”
The Wolverines wasted little time in the first set, jumping out to a 12-5 lead behind their strong hitting. Michigan hit .300 in the first set compared to Michigan State’s .073. After giving up two points, the Wolverines went on a 4-0 run that was capped by two of sophomore setter Lexi Dannemiller’s three kills in the match. Both teams traded points before Michigan used a kill from Cross to close out the set.
Dannemiller continued to quarterback her team, finishing with just 30 assists in this game. Following her match against No. 9 Louisville in which she was just two assist shy of her record, Dannemiller quickly adapted to the Spartans commit-block scheme to find the open hitter.
“I think Jenn (Cross) did a really good job in the first two sets of exploiting that commit-block,” Erwin said. “I know Dannemiller did a great job of holding them by being a threat herself.”
The second set was much closer, though, ending with 17 ties. Michigan, down 15-13 in the set, went on a 4-0 run, only to see Michigan State go on a similar run of its own.
Trailing 21-20 in the second set, Rosen called a timeout that effectively rallied his team. Cross continued to make her presence felt in the second set, tallying two kills and a block in a short 4-0 run, giving the Wolverines a set-point advantage. The veteran blocker wasn’t fazed, though, when her team allowed the Spartans to tie the game at 24, as she handed out yet another kill to close the set.
“Everyone’s buying into our system, coaches to players included,” Cross said. “I think that’s been the key for us.”
That system reacted well to Michigan State’s slight advantage in the third set. Facing a 13-12 deficit, Michigan responded with a 5-0 momentum swing, featuring kills from both Erwin and Cross. The set, and ultimately the game, never slipped away from the Wolverines, despite allowing the set to be tied at 24 again.
It was fitting, that Cross ended the game, leaping to spot the ball between all six Spartans on the court. The Wolverines stormed the court, building off their run that started in the regular season after losses to Illinois and Northwestern.
Michigan’s defense also game up in crucial situations, led by freshman libero Tiffany Morales, who finished with 19 digs while playing in her home state. Freshman middle blocker Krystalyn Goode also finished with five blocks to tie Cross for the team lead.
Michigan’ second-ever regional final is a product of a team that appears relaxed, with a perpetual smile.
“This is a really special team and I think we know how special it is,” Cross said. “We really, really get along and its something we’ll always remember.
“It’s great, but we’re not done. We have one more game to get back to the Final Four. We’re going back to Louisville.”