By Neal Rothschild, Daily Sports Writer
Published October 2, 2011
On Saturday night, for the first time in history, a Michigan athletic team played Nebraska in a Big Ten conference game.
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It didn't take much time for the Cornhuskers to get comfortable. They took apart the No. 17 Michigan volleyball team (2-2 Big Ten, 14-2 overall) in three sets at Cliff Keen Arena, using their array of six-footers to overpower the Wolverines’ blockers. Six-foot-five sophomore right side Morgan Broekhuis led the attack with 13 kills.
“They’re a great program, and they’re great in every aspect,” said senior libero Sloane Donhoff. “Coming in, they have a lot of tradition too and especially when we go there, they sell out a crowd that’s huge. When you play a team like that, you have to be super clean. They don't make a lot of errors.”
A week after taking down No. 9 Penn State – a perennial juggernaut — Nebraska (4-0, 15-1) asserted itself as a legitimate threat to win the conference.
The 7th-ranked Cornhuskers add even more power to one of the best volleyball conferences in the nation. Six Big Ten teams fill up the top 17 in the country and four are in the top-10, including No. 1 Illinois.
“Certainly (the addition of Nebraska) makes it more competitive,” said Michigan coach Mark Rosen. “It makes (the Big Ten) stronger, and in the big picture, that’s good for us. That’s one or two really tough matches we have to be ready for.”
A BALANCING ACT: Michigan’s kills have been shooting off the palms of many different Wolverine hands this season. In different games, team leaders in kills have come from outside hitters to middle blockers to right sides. This weekend’s games were no different.
In Friday’s 3-0 win over Iowa, sophomore outside hitter Lexi Erwin and redshirt junior right side Claire McElheny led the charge with 12 kills apiece. But on Saturday it was senior middle blocker Courtney Fletcher pounding down the spikes from the center of the court. She led the Wolverines with 12 kills.
A shoulder injury kept Hunt out for the weekend, but it opened the door for offense from another source — sophomore outside hitter Molly Toon. She recorded 10 kills on the weekend and scrambled for 11 digs on Friday alone.
The arrival of freshman setter Lexi Dannemiller has spurred the diversity on offense, with her dishing out assists on slide kills, pipe shots and outside attacks.
“I think it’s a testament to our hitters that (Dannemiller) has the confidence to go to them,” Rosen said. “We had a big piece of that missing with Alex out. That’s someone we get a lot of confidence from because she’s very experienced and she’s very good. Lexi has to find new combinations for what she’s going to do. That’s a lot of decision making on the floor but I thought she did well with it.”
ZEROING IN ON DEFENSE: Though the Michigan offense was on point in its 3-0 win against Iowa on Friday, it was the defense that recorded the gaudy numbers. The Wolverines held the Hawkeyes to a .000 attack percentage and put up 11 blocks and 46 digs.
Donhoff captained the defense and held the Hawkeyes to as many attack errors as kills (25). She managed 12 digs on the night in addition to Toon’s 11 and Dannemiller’s nine.
“That starts with our serving,” Donhoff said. “We can get them going high-outside, and our blockers are phenomenal at going over the net and getting a lot of blocks. As a defender, if the blockers are strong, it’s really easy to read around. So it all ties in together — serving, blocking and defense.”
Dannemiller took the lead on defense on Saturday. Against the toughest opponent of the year, she managed 22 digs to complement her 33 assists and helped to keep Michigan alive on many points. She helped turn the momentum in the second set when the Wolverines erased a 17-12 deficit to pull even.
“I thought Dannemiller had her best match since she came to Michigan,” Rosen said. “We knew the right side was going to dig a lot of balls or we weren’t going to have a chance to compete, because Broekhuis hits a lot of balls across court and she’s their best hitter.
“(Dannemiller) still has to keep progressing, just like the rest of the team. But I was very excited about what she did tonight.”
ESPN IN THE HOUSE: The big matchup on Saturday brought brighter lights than the Wolverines have been used to this season. The game streamed live on ESPN3 and was aired Sunday on ESPN2.
And it might have played a factor in the match.