Welsh embracing Michigan’s offensive balance in post-Skjodt era

Sunday, September 8, 2019 - 5:01pm

Senior setter MacKenzi Welsh has embraced a new offensive system that emphasizes balance for the Michigan volleyball team.

Senior setter MacKenzi Welsh has embraced a new offensive system that emphasizes balance for the Michigan volleyball team. Buy this photo
Evan Aaron/Daily

A year ago, the Michigan volleyball team’s offense started and ended with Carly Skjodt.

The senior outside hitter was responsible for nearly a third of the Wolverines’ total offense during their 2018 campaign, which ended in Michigan’s seventh trip to the Sweet Sixteen in program history. Skjodt served as the workhorse for most of the season, leading the Wolverines in kills in 24 of their 34 matches. She recorded 29 double-digit kill performances and eclipsed the 20-kill mark seven times, earning second team All-American honors for her efforts.

This year, the No. 14 Michigan volleyball team knows Skjodt’s production is gone. And with such a realization comes another: Nobody on the roster can replicate the numbers she posted.

So, the Wolverines (4-2) have chosen to adapt rather than force.

Their offensive makeover was on full display over the weekend at the Dayton Invitational, even as they lost two of three matches against unranked competition in the Flyers and Missouri. Throughout the non-conference tri-match, senior setter MacKenzi Welsh turned to three relatively new faces — senior outside hitter Sydney Wetterstrom and freshman middle blockers May Pertofsky and Jess Robinson — to shoulder the majority of the burden.

Though it’s still admittedly a work in progress, as seen in the two weekend losses, things are moving in the right direction. When the team controls the ball, it gives those three new faces a chance to shine.

While Pertofsky and Robinson are still acclimating to the college level, Wetterstrom appeared in 23 of Michigan’s 34 matches in 2018. She tallied 163 kills on a mediocre .220 attack percentage. Sophomore outside hitter Paige Jones, who finished with the second-most kills on the team last season, has seen a similar volume to begin 2019. 

Jones was the only Wolverine besides Skjodt to reach the 175-kill milestone a season ago, a sign of dependence on the outside hitters. But through six matches without Skjodt, four different Michigan players — Wetterstrom, Jones, Pertofsky and Robinson — have already recorded at least 45 kills. For reference, that’s a 250-kill pace.

“There’s way more options,” Wolverine coach Mark Rosen said. “There’s way more things we can do and that’s a good thing.”

The new offense is a credit to Welsh’s willingness to embrace a fresh system. This season’s balanced three-middle offense is a far cry from last year’s outside hitter-reliant strategy, and its success is contingent on Welsh’s commitment to keeping every attacker involved.

“Setters don’t always set with a purpose, (sometimes) they just deliver balls,” Rosen said. “Today, I thought she was purposeful. Every set she set was with the objective of getting a kill. … The one thing with having more options is that you have to make more decisions. She’s handling that really well.

“You treat it a little bit like a kid in a candy store. She’s got to make a choice to get it to the right person at the right time and tonight she did an outstanding job.”

In Michigan’s five-set loss against Dayton on Saturday night, six players saw at least 15 attack attempts. Welsh has made the transition from setting one player at will to running an offense in which every weapon is involved, including herself.

Surprisingly enough, the Wolverines’ offense has taken a step forward since Skjodt’s departure. The unit’s attack percentage is 53 percentage points higher, Welsh is making the most of her new options and the middle blockers are more effective than they were at any point last season.

Though a two-week, six-games sample may not be enough to draw any conclusions, this season’s start has been an encouraging sign for the Michigan. A balanced offense could be what the Wolverines need to break into the upper echelon of the Big Ten, which boasts seven top-18 teams in the national poll.

This year, such an offense rides on its setter — not its primary weapon. So far, that’s made all the difference.

“(Welsh) did a great job of making the people around her better,” Rosen said. “She’s our floor captain — that’s what you want that player to do and I was really proud of her.”