Shortcomings show against Nebraska, bounce back against Iowa
Michigan coach Mark Rosen called this weekend’s experience a new dynamic for the team.
He was referring to the beginning of Big Ten play, of course, but in many more ways than one, the seventeenth-ranked Wolverines volleyball team had to face a new dynamic — losing — as it dropped its first match of the season against No. 3 Nebraska before bouncing back to beat Iowa.
“I thought we played okay at times, but we didn’t play at the level that we needed to to be successful,” Rosen said. “That was the first loss for us, how’s the team going to respond? How are they going to be able to come back from that?
“We don’t know because we haven’t done it all year.”
Despite the set count saying otherwise, as Michigan fell in four sets to the Cornhuskers, the game was close-knit, with both teams encountering ways to exploit one another’s weaknesses.
Though for the Wolverines, their weaknesses were an open book — and Nebraska read it.
While tough serving will throw any team off, Michigan’s passing dove in quality due to taking the brunt of bad first touches, and in turn, the offense as a whole struggled. The Cornhuskers were, as Rosen emphasized, “huge,” and against a mismatch physically, mediocre passes won’t get the job done.
In many cases where one team is more dominant sizewise, it is counterable with pinpoint passing. There are ways to work around a stable block if the spiker has flexible spiking options once in the air — which falls upon the setter to make happen. And there was no question that Nebraska was bigger and more physical.
But by taking away junior setter Mackenzi Welsh’s typically accurate-passes through aggressive serving, the Cornhuskers disrupted the Wolverines’ balanced offense so that it could only muster a .135 attack average to a .314 of their own — a game-defining differential. They essentially made it so Michigan had no choice but to hit where and when they wanted to and made the offense predictable.
“It was the first time I’ve really seen this team get flustered,” Rosen said. “I certainly have to give credit to Nebraska, they’re a good team. They’re a big part of why we get flustered. We got away from what we usually do.”
When you face someone more physical, someone who forces you out of your game plan and has all the adjustments to counter what you are good at, there’s little you can do.
But the Wolverines found a way to keep the match against the third-best team in the nation competitive, and it is every bit a testament to their tenacity. But that alone just wasn’t enough. Nebraska had the edge in every statistical category and came out on top accordingly.
The real worry for this Michigan team was how it would respond to the loss, something it had avoided all year. There are many routes a team can go after the first loss, but the Wolverines took one that Rosen thought of as a nice job in bouncing back.
In a nearly-equivalent statistical game, Michigan found a way to tip the balance through standout performances from its outside hitters. Junior Sydney Wetterstrom hit a career-high 21 kills, while senior Carly Skjodt and freshman Paige Jones added 18 and 14 kills, respectively.
“I thought (Wetterstrom) was outstanding,” Rosen said. “From the very beginning, she was great. She was really really productive for us. I thought (Wetterstrom), she carried it. She was huge for us.
“I thought (Skjodt) was good, and it wasn’t an easy match because Iowa did a very good job of game planning against us and taking things away from us, and they put a lot of pressure on (Jones) and (Skjodt), and (Skjodt) did what she always does.
Those players proved to be a difference maker in an up-and-down match.
“It was a good balance match,” Rosen said. “They were good. We were good. And it was really back-and-forth, and the first set was really tight, and I thought we competed really well in those last few points to finish it out and they actually had a lead most of the first set and we just fought our way out of it, and second set it was same thing, back and-forth, back and forth. It could have gone any way.