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Michigan's strong hitting bullies No. 22 Illinois

Patrick Barron/Daily
The Michigan volleyball team celebrates its three-set victory over Illinois. Buy this photo

By Greg Garno, Daily Sports Writer
Published October 10, 2012

In the midst of a 5-0 run, junior outside hitter Lexi Erwin took a back set from sophomore Lexi Dannemiller at the peak of her jump and slammed the ball down, the sound reverberating throughout Cliff Keen Arena. Illinois junior libero Jennifer Beltran was forced to move out of the way to protect her face as the ball rocketed towards the court.

It was frightening to be on the opposing end of the Michigan volleyball team’s 25-16, 25-19, 26-24 straight-set win on Wednesday night.

You wouldn’t have expected it, though, knowing the Wolverines were on a three-game skid, had only one day of practice between games and were implementing a new offensive system.

But Michigan played with a conviction that it had been lacking during its losing streak, posting a .304 attacking percentage with three players accumulating double-digit kills, as well as 52 digs and 10 team blocks.

“We know we have talent and we know we have the ability to play,” said Michigan coach Mark Rosen. “Tonight we executed extremely well in every facet of the game. That’s the key to any sport — you have to execute.”

It helped that the 22nd-ranked Fighting Illini committed 30 errors during the game and were only able to manage a .188 attacking percentage.

The Wolverines worked their way to an 8-5 run to begin the first set, and following a kill from junior middle blocker Jennifer Cross, they went on a short 3-0 run to force Illinois to take a timeout. Illinois would take the next three points, but couldn’t hang on as it watched the 5-0 rally crush any hope of a comeback.

Michigan totaled a strong .398 attack percentage in the first set, overpowering the Fighting Illini, who hit just .029.

“I think our team did a good job of playing like they know how to play,” Erwin said. “Mentally, we worked on just not taking it so seriously and being so tight.”

The Wolverines raced out to a 3-0 lead to begin the second set, but Illinois responded with a 4-0 run of its own. It was the last time Michigan trailed in the set, as play continued back-and-forth. The Wolverines worked their way up to a 15-11 lead before the set slowed down, and their 4-0 run closed out the set with another Erwin kill.

Michigan also incorporated an unusual offense into Wednesday’s game, using a three-hitter system in which the setter, Dannemiller, had three passing options. At times, the attack caught the Fighting Illini off guard, especially when Cross was positioned at right-side hitter.

Cross’s new position resulted in 14 kills and nine blocks, as well as a season-high seven digs.

“I’ve kind of been waiting for myself to do that all season,” Cross said. “I think I’ve been hitting really well, but I wanted to hit really well, pass, and play defense. So tonight it felt good all around. This new system is new, so it gets you excited to play volleyball again.”

A much bleaker outcome seemed likely in the third set as the Wolverines quickly fell behind 10-7. A consistent and unwavering Michigan team fought back, though, to take a 21-20 lead on another of Erwin’s 12 kills.

The lead was the team’s first since a 3-2 lead in the beginning of the set.

Tied at 24, the Wolverines used a kill from freshman outside hitter Ally Davis and a combined block from fifth-year senior Claire McElheny and freshman middle blocker Krystalyn Goode to capture the game.

Junior outside defensive specialist Ally Sabol led what looked like a new defense with 17 digs, while Dannemiller posted a team-high 37 assists.

The Wolverines finally had a chance to play at home after four straight games on the road.

But that doesn’t mean they slept.

“I pulled my first all-nighter because I had to,” Cross said after arriving back from the team’s visit to Wisconsin. “(I was) with Lexi Danamiller in the fishbowl the other night after we got home from the game. We haven’t really had time to practice really.”

There’s no telling how frightening the team will look with consecutive days of practice.