Heading into intermission against then-No. 1 Wisconsin on Saturday, the Michigan volleyball team dug itself into a 2-0 deficit, and the Wolverines did so again at Maryland on Wednesday. The similarities between the two matches just about ended there.
Saturday, in the confines of Cliff Keen Arena, Michigan came within two points of pulling off its first upset of a top-ranked team in program history. Wednesday, in a harsh road environment, the Wolverines (6-3 Big Ten, 17-4 overall) only managed to survive, staving off two late match points to outlast the reeling Terrapins (0-9 Big Ten, 8-13 overall), 3-2.
“It was a different match in the sense that we went down 2-0 because we didn’t execute very well,” said Michigan coach Mark Rosen. “It was a little bit different than Wisconsin. I think Wisconsin executed really well those first two sets, and that kind of put us down, where this one we were really chaotic.”
Saturday, against a team near the top of the Big Ten standings, Michigan emerged from the locker room a different team, fighting back to tie the match at two sets apiece before dropping the final set, 15-13.
In College Park, Rosen’s team found itself in a deafening gym, sitting in a different locker room and facing a different emotion.
“I think there was some shock — no question,” Rosen said. “I think there was certainly some (looking) around the room, and nobody expected to be in that position. But I also think there was some calm reason in people going, ‘Hey, we know what we need to do.’ I think we had a good game plan, and I think everybody clearly believed in themselves, or they wouldn’t have been able to come back and win those next ones.”
Michigan needed every point, but in the end, the Wolverines avoided a major letdown. A block by Claire Kieffer-Wright and Ally Davis saved one match point, and a kill by Carly Skjodt saved another. Back-to-back Maryland errors gave Michigan the win, and Rosen high-fived his wife and assistant coach, Leisa, while his team embraced in a huddle of excitement and relief.
After the Wolverines beat Maryland two weekends ago at Cliff Keen Arena, 3-1, Rosen warned his team that this trip might be difficult — though, he conceded, he did not expect to start down 2-0. Michigan’s hope was to string together some long early runs to bounce back from the loss to Wisconsin. But it never had that chance.
The Wolverines missed six serves in each of the first two sets — including the final point in each — thwarting any opportunity to take hold of the match. Meanwhile, the Terrapins blitzed them with kills on the first three points and seized all of the momentum in their loud home gym.
“The beginning of the match, they jumped on us a little bit, and then it just got chaotic because it’s so loud and so just frenetic,” Rosen said. “I just thought that we really lost our composure a little bit in that. And that happens. It’s not like a video game — there’s a human factor.”
The intensity in the gym caught the Wolverines off guard. Even during timeouts, Rosen said, they could hardly hear each other. Again given the opportunity to go to intermission and regroup, they did so. They shored up their serve issues, not committing any errors in the next two sets. And they passed better, forcing Maryland into some miscues of its own.
It took more than an hour, but Michigan started to play the game it traveled to College Park to play. The Wolverines took the third set, 25-18, and jumped out to a 14-3 lead to control the fourth.
They received a host of contributions. With Maryland locked in on Michigan’s top attacker, senior Abby Cole, Davis led the Wolverines with 16 kills. Kieffer-Wright added 14, and Mahlke contributed 12. Cole managed just eight, yet Michigan generated enough offense to win.
“I think the big thing is slowing the pace down, making sure they’re playing at their own pace,” Rosen said. “I think when you can’t get verbal communication, I think it’s really important to get eye contact and find ways to communicate and connect with your teammates, and I don’t think we did that well in the first two sets.”
Heading into another home showdown Saturday night against Penn State, a win was all the Wolverines needed. Rosen knows how valuable those are in the Big Ten and also how close his team was to picking up a big one last weekend.
“After the Wisconsin match, there’s no question — it stung,” Rosen said. “It hurts a little bit. But when we came in for practice on Monday, I thought everybody was ready to go and ready to focus on the next match.”
The Wolverines’ next challenge is to avoid the early deficit that nearly plagued them again Wednesday. They play six more road games this year, the next one coming next Friday in a similar environment at Purdue.
For now, Michigan can move on with some momentum — no small task given its schedule.
“They know this conference is a meat grinder,” Rosen said. “You’re going to have that day in and day out, so I think they’re mature enough to know that hey, you gotta put it away and move onto the next one.”