Michigan upsets No. 9 Penn State
It required one of the best performances of the season, but in a matchup of two Big Ten volleyball powerhouses Saturday at Cliff Keen Arena, the No. 16 Michigan volleyball team rallied to beat No. 9 Penn State, 3-2.
Three players earned career highs for the Wolverines (7-3 Big Ten, 18-4 overall) in the upset. Those were from outside hitter Carly Skjodt (27 kills), setter MacKenzi Welsh (67 assists) and libero Tiffany Clark (20 digs).
Michigan came together in the fifth and deciding set to hand Penn State (9-1, 17-4) its first conference loss of the season and break the Nittany Lions’ 15-match winning streak. The Wolverines jumped out to a 10-6 lead and were able to finish out the set strong, winning 15-9.
“One of the things we talked about in the locker room prior to the match was that our styles of play for these two teams are really similar,” said Michigan coach Mark Rosen. “We thought if we played well, and they played well, that it was going to be a really good volleyball match.”
Michigan managed to battle through an early lead by the Nittany Lions in the first set, eventually putting together a run that left the Wolverines at a solid 16-9 advantage. From there on, Penn State turned things up, finishing the set hitting .419 to Michigan’s .324. The Wolverines extended a lead through the middle of the set and held off a late Nittany Lion push, winning 25-23.
This early win came largely from the aggressive play of Michigan middle blocker Claire Kieffer-Wright, who finished the set with six of the team’s 17 kills. Among other contributors were Skjodt and opposite hitter Katherine Mahlke, who had four and three kills, respectively.
Welsh, who averaged 10.25 assists per set coming into Saturday’s match, finished the opening set with 14.
“In any game, if your team is up plus five points, it’s really hard for the team that’s down to dig out of the hole, especially late in the set,” Kieffer-Wright said. “So it gives you that cushion which is really nice, and we worked hard for that. We definitely got the result because we worked for those things.”
Any momentum the Wolverines had gained was in serious jeopardy, as Penn State jumped out to an early lead in set two and didn’t look back, winning 25-17.
The second set was much sloppier for the Wolverines, who committed nine errors and hit .075. Penn State had just seven total errors through the first two.
With the score tied, 1-1, the teams headed into a tide-turning third set. There weren’t many scoring runs in this set, and neither team held more than a three-point lead.
The Nittany Lions held a late 24-21 lead, but Michigan cobbled together four unanswered points to take the advantage. Penn State was able to answer the call with its back against the wall, and forced multiple extra points on the set. The Wolverines won gritty battles in the deciding moments of the set and came away with a hard-earned 29-27 victory.
Skjodt and Kieffer-Wright led the way again in this set, with 12 combined kills. Welsh again exceeded her season average, piling up 17 assists.
“The last two or three sets were really close,” Kieffer-Wright said. “There were no real leads or cushions. It was point for point. The third set was quite an emotional battle, and you just had to stay high and energetic and keep fighting. The crowd was amazing to help with that.”
The same vibe was present throughout the fourth set, with the lead teetering back-and-forth from beginning to end. Michigan was able to work a 23-22 lead late in the set, but committed a few mental errors that allowed the Nittany Lions to take the set, forcing a winner-take-all fifth.
When it was all said and done, with the Wolverines coming out on top, it’s clear that this will go down as a classic Big Ten volleyball match.
“If you’re a volleyball enthusiast and you’re watching the Big Ten, these kinds of matches are happening every night,” Rosen said. “Our conference is crazy-good right now. We’ve got nine teams ranked in the top 25, three of the top four in the country, Penn State and us are right there, Michigan State is right there.
“In the 18 years that I’ve been here, this is by far the best the conference has ever been. It’s fun to be right in the middle of it and be battling.”