LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Off, over, around and through.
It was the way the Michigan volleyball team was able to juice five sets from No. 3 Texas, and the same way the Longhorns earned themselves a spot in the NCAA Championship.
They say everything is bigger in Texas. And for Michigan, a bigger block kept them just inches from the final.
Texas’ 6-foot-3 duo of sophomore All-American Haley Eckerman and freshman Molly McCage created a nearly inpenetrable wall against everyone from junior outside hitter Lexi Erwin to junior middle blocker Jennifer Cross on Thursday night at the KFC Yum! Center.
As a team, the Longhorns out-blocked the Wolverines 23-13 and were led by its shortest hitter, 6-foot-1 sophomore Khat Bell, who added six blocks of her own.
“They’re the most athletic team we’ve seen,” said Michigan coach Mark Rosen. “It doesn’t mean that they’re the best team that’s going to win it all, but as far as just physical athleticism and size, they’re as good as we’ve seen.”
For the Wolverines, a 6-foot-4 Cross and senior middle blocker Claire McElheny were unable to stop the eleven-foot leap of junior All-American Bailey Webster, who led her team with 18 kills on the night.
Against a blocking system that seemed to be in all of the right places in the first set, Michigan was forced into seven errors, which matched only seven kills for a kill percentage of .000. Scouting faired well for the Longhorns, who were able to pinpoint Michigan’s offensive weapon in Erwin and essentially take away the middle blocker.
Despite clinching the single-season kills record for the Wovlerines, Erwin was shut down in the first and final two sets by the double block on the outside and a triple block when hitting from the back row.
Without a block of its own, the Wolverines allowed 16 balls to hit the floor and dropped the first set 25-11.
“We just got smoked it the first game,” Erwin said. “But we didn't really dwell so much on (the first match). We talked about speeding up the tempo and passing close to the net so that (Dannemiller) could distribute the ball better."
Speeding up the offense in the second and third sets gave Michigan a second wind against the Longhorns. As a whole, the Wolverines managed 16 kills against the Texan block, holding it to just one stuff.
Rosen placed McElheny on a slide route, forcing middle blocker Sha’Dare McNeal and outside hitter Hannah Allison to beat her to the pin. Both Toon and Erwin took to hitting into the block, ricocheting the ball out of bounds. The speed of the offense awarded the Wolverines open seams to place the ball around Texas’ libero. Paired with smart tips and timely blocks from Cross, Michigan found itself out-blocking and out-hitting the Longhorns and in a position to advance to the finals.
Off, over, around and through was not enough to stop a Texan offense that featured four hitters with double-digit kills in the match. In the fifth set, Michigan looked like the same team it had in the first set; when forced to hit over the block, the only place to go was out of bounds.
“It’s a game of inches at times,” Rosen said. “They just executed a little bit better than we did in the end there.”