- Stephen J. Nesbitt/Daily
By Alejandro Zúñiga, Daily Sports Writer
Published December 13, 2012
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Playing in its first-ever Final Four at a packed KFC Yum! Center, the Michigan volleyball team’s Cinderella run ended with a five-set defeat to No. 3 Texas.
The Wolverines had never made such a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. Before the match, the players tried to calm their jitters by sharing jokes and high fives, and by softly joining the band in cheers of “Let’s go blue.” But the Longhorns dominated Michigan and won the first set, 25-11. On the bench, Michigan coach Mark Rosen muttered in frustration as Texas overwhelmed his team.
“They’re just athletic,” he said.
But even after the disappointing start, the smiles didn’t leave the faces of the Wolverines.
“We kind of were like, you know what, they have a ‘three’ before their name, and we don’t,” said junior outside hitter Lexi Erwin. “We don’t have the pressure on us. And so we kind of just played loose. … Our team just came out with this fearless mentality (in the second set).”
As they’d done all season long, Michigan mounted a comeback. The second set featured just one lead change — when the Wolverines went ahead, 2-1. They staved off several Longhorn rallies to tie the match at one set apiece at the halftime intermission.
After the break, Michigan jogged out of the room with renewed confidence. As music blared over the loudspeaker, Erwin danced with her teammates, and when the Wolverines began to claw back from an early deficit in the third set, the bench showed its support. Freshman middle blocker Krystalyn Goode couldn’t contain her excitement, leaping and yelling every time Michigan earned a point. After all, nobody had predicted that the unranked Wolverines would upset No. 2 Stanford to reach the Final Four, or even No. 10 Louisville a week prior. And after the first set, few would have predicted that Michigan might pull off yet another upset.
“Fans got their money’s worth,” said Texas coach Jerritt Elliott. “(Michigan coach Mark Rosen) did a tremendous job, not only with this tournament but in preparing for our team.”
On the court, the Wolverines’ energy helped them stay competitive with an athletically superior Longhorns team. When senior Claire McElheny’s kill gave Michigan a one-point lead, she didn’t hide her emotions. McElheny turned to a teammate and smiled. Then she looked to the sideline and winked. The team’s lone senior earned another kill, and soon the Wolverines led 24-21. Pacing along the sideline, Rosen encouraged his team.
“We’re going to finish it right here,” he said. “Right now, let’s go.”
And they did. Michigan had pushed Texas to the brink of elimination.
But the Longhorns responded. In the fourth set, their strong blocking fueled a 25-12 victory, and in the decisive fifth set, the Wolverines looked like the less experienced team by making several uncharacteristic errors. Cool and composed both on the court and off, Texas — which has made the national semifinals four out of the past five years — stymied a Wolverines comeback to earn a 15-11 win and a spot in the championship.
Her collegiate career suddenly over, McElheny glanced into the contingent of Michigan fans in the stands. One person held a sign that read, “ ‘M’ volleyball alumni are so proud.” As the Wolverines huddled one last time and jogged off the court, the entire crowd rose to its feet, applauding Cinderella as she graciously left the ball.
As Rosen reflected on Michigan’s remarkably successful run, he couldn’t help but mention the senior who had led the Wolverines into the national spotlight.
“(McElheny) did a great job leading the team,” Rosen said. “I hope the younger players were watching, because now it’s their turn.”