This wasn’t supposed to be the year.
This wasn’t supposed to be the season the Michigan volleyball team advanced to its first Final Four in program history. With seven freshmen on their roster, the Wolverines weren’t supposed to be this successful against ranked teams.
But after winning a five-set thriller against Tennessee, knocking off No. 9 Louisville and beating in-state rival Michigan State, Michigan capitalized on its momentum to topple No. 2 Stanford in four sets, 20-25, 25-20, 25-20, 25-20, in Berkeley, Calif. on Saturday night to advance to Louisville, Ky. for its first-ever NCAA Tournament Final Four appearance.
Michigan moves on to play Texas on Thursday.
The Cardinal, a dominant Pac-12 team that has seen action in the postseason every year in its history, has had the misfortune of facing the Wolverines in three of the last four years and was favored to win each time. But Michigan has upset Stanford all three times.
“I’m just very proud of our team,” said Michigan coach Mark Rosen. “The word ‘team’ is really the key. I think this group has really come together in the past month and a half and become one of the best teams I’ve ever been a part of.
“I think we just approached (the Elite Eight) like any other match. They were just very relaxed, very loose, very normal. Today was completely like any other day, they were goofy, they were silly and they were having fun, yet they were focused.”
An offense normally led by two hitters was not expected to have four step up, but Michigan finished with four hitters in double-digit kills. Junior outside hitter Lexi Erwin led the way as she has all postseason, with 23 of the team’s 69 kills, earning her the honor of NCAA Regional MVP.
From the beginning of the first set, it appeared as if Stanford was finally ready for Michigan. As the only unseeded team remaining in the Elite Eight, the Wolverines were never expected to mount a comeback, but they did.
Both teams came out aggressive in the set, but it was the Cardinal’s blocking that caught Michigan off-guard. Sophomore setter Lexi Dannemiller followed her game plan, isolating Erwin and junior outside hitter Molly Toon. But the pair continually found themselves stuffed at the net on several swings. When they did manage to hit it around the wall, there was a Stanford defensive specialist waiting to pass.
The Wolverines, benefitting from a strong freshman squad, met an equally impressive freshman group from Stanford. With the score tied at eight, a balanced Cardinal front led by freshman middle blocker Inky Ajanaku went on a 6-0 run to grab a comfortable lead and eventually close out the set.
The Wolverines refused to stop challenging Stanford’s blocking scheme in the second set and raced out to a 16-10 lead, capped by a kill from right-side hitter Claire McElheny. Fourteen of the Wolverines’ first 16 points came on kills.
Despite the Cardinal’s two errors in the set, Michigan continued to score, winding up for kill after kill. The Wolverines coasted through the remainder of the second set, even as Stanford fought them off.
“We’re a very balanced team and that’s something we pride ourselves on,” Cross said. “It was really about attacking the quick tempo and then spreading out and giving our outsides an open space to hit.”
Cross finished second on the team with 15 kills after her strong effort the previous night. Toon followed with 12 kills and McElheny with 11.
Following back-and-forth play from both teams in the third set, Michigan opened up a lead on a 6-1 run. Stanford took a timeout but it was ineffective at slowing down a team that had no trouble responding to a powerful Cardinal defense. The Wolverines cruised through the remainder of the set, riding a wave of momentum into the final.
With a two-set lead to boot, Michigan looked like the team that had been in this situation before, the team that knew how to close out big games in the fourth set. Trailing 10-9, the Wolverines put together a 5-0 run, leaving Stanford looking drained and sullen.
Leading 15-13, Michigan needed one final run to crush any thought of a comeback in the fourth set. The Wolverines did so with a 4-0 run, which ultimately allowed them to cruise to a match point, which Erwin finished off with an emphatic kill.
The Wolverines, the team that wasn’t predicted to be celebrating, celebrated. They smiled as they had all season, as even the coaches knew they had accomplished something special.
Freshman libero Tiffany Morales, playing in front of friends and family in her home state, bailed out Michigan when it needed her most. The Redondo Beach, Calif. native tallied 22 digs on a night where she was all over the court. Erwin, too, found herself doing more than hitting, contributing 16 digs of her own.
“Tiffany’s progression has been great,” Rosen said. “I thought last night she did an outstanding job of just positioning herself and making great defensive plays, and she definitely carried that through tonight. She’s been a huge defensive force for us.”
Dannemiller, who continues to be a catalyst for a team that wasn’t supposed to have a variety of options to pass to, finished with 59 of her team’s 66 assists on the night.
“Our setter, I thought tonight, set one of the best matches I’ve seen her set in her career,” Rosen said. “She put our hitters in great positions and made great decisions throughout the match that really allowed us to be successful.”
It’s likely Michigan, a team without a real star, will once again be underdogs when it travels to Louisville to face the Longhorns.
But that underdog mindset doesn’t exist anymore.
“It doesn’t matter because we’re such a great team,” Erwin said. “We don’t need our names out there because no matter what teams throw at us, 14 people are coming at them.”
They’ve done it to No. 9 Louisville and No. 2 Stanford, so why not again?
“We might not be the biggest names or the highest profile, but I think this a team that is playing as well as anybody in the country right now,” Rosen said. “And I’m excited about that.”