Michigan serves Illinois and Northwestern two losses
Walking onto the court with a rose in one hand and the other hand in the arms of their parents, the Michigan volleyball team stood huddled on the court with a game plan and an urgent sense to win.
The 17th-ranked Wolverines came out strong this weekend with back-to-back wins against Illinois and Northwestern. This followed Michigan’s first two-game losing streak of the season the previous weekend to Purdue and Indiana.
Saturday at Cliff Keen Arena, the Wolverines witnessed their fifth straight sold-out crowd. Riding momentum from its 3-1 win over Illinois Friday night, Michigan took down Northwestern in four sets, dropping only the second.
“Coming off of a win is especially motivating,” said senior middle blocker Abby Cole.
The game ended with three Michigan players earning double-digit numbers in kills: Cole, junior middle blocker Claire Kieffer-Wright and Carly Skjodt. Skjodt earned her fifth kill-dig double-double this season.
Welsh started the first set with an assist to Kieffer-Wright for the first kill of the game. Kieffer-Wright, finishing with 13 kills, led both teams in the first set with five kills over 10 attempts. With the match remaining close, Michigan finally sparked a three-point run to establish a solid lead. Northwestern called for a timeout to attempt to turn the momentum. Kieffer-Wright helped close out the first set with two kills and a block during a 6-1 Michigan run that ended the set, 25-17.
Serving was a strength for the Wolverines in the match versus Illinois, where they tallied 11 service aces, including the game-winner. However, in the second set, Michigan’s service became a liability. The problem wasn’t about errors, it was just soft serving, which led to Northwestern dominating the set.
“I thought we just served too easy,” said Michigan coach Mark Rosen. “I thought in the second set, we were just putting it into play and we were making a team look good because they were able to control the ball well. Service is first contact. Pass is first contact. You want to win the first-contact battle.”
Northwestern started out aggressive, going on a 9-4 run to start the set. The easy serves allowed the Wildcats cleaner receptions, outscoring Michigan in digs, 17-10, in the second set. Northwestern, with a prior lead, went on a five-point run and took the set 25-17.
The third set proved to be a challenge for both teams. With six lead changes and seven ties before either team reached 10 points, Michigan went on a 7-1 run after a substitution to bring junior opposite hitter Katherine Mahlke into the game.
“It really just depends on the opponent, and so I thought in that situation, (Mahlke) came in and made a great impact,” Rosen said. “She came out because we were looking for a different matchup, and it was mainly about blocking.”
The Wolverines won the third set largely because of their blocking. They gained six block assists in the set, and seven players totaled 16 over the course of four sets.
A series of attack errors by Wildcat opposite hitter Symone Abbott allowed Michigan to quash any attempt to shift the momentum, as the Wolverines’ Kieffer-Wright and redshirt freshman middle blocker Cori Crocker helped lock down the third set with blocks and kills.
In the fourth set, again, Michigan and Northwestern battled for the lead early — but the Wolverines clinched the set, 25-17.
Michigan made up for its serving problems early in the game by serving an ace for the win. Welsh placed the ball to the left, bouncing off an unprepared hitter as the ball spiraled out of bounds, over the heads of pursuing players to put on the finishing touches.