After his team’s first weekend of the 2016 season, Michigan volleyball coach Mark Rosen said he doesn’t like to compare teams from different seasons. There are too many variables: different players, different circumstances, different schedules.
But last week, with this season nearing its end, when asked to compare, Rosen couldn’t help but see the resemblance. His team finished above .500 in the Big Ten for the first time since 2012, reached the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2012 and was on a collision course to play Texas for the first time since the Longhorns eliminated Michigan from the NCAA Tournament in 2012.
There were more similarities: Rosen’s 2012 team and his 2016 team had a core group of veteran players, but also a handful of freshman contributors. Two of his freshmen on the 2012 team were fifth-year senior leaders on the 2016 team. And that 2012 team made the program’s only Final Four.
The Wolverines landed in Austin, Texas, on Wednesday looking to get back to that level. It didn’t happen. Friday night in the Sweet 16, Creighton ended Michigan’s season by winning the decisive fifth set, 15-7.
When Rosen spoke on Wednesday, he knew that might happen. He knew Creighton had a good team. He knew the Wolverines had lost 10 times before this season, and had lost other NCAA Tournament matches before. He did not claim that his team was infallible. He had one belief about how the weekend would go.
“I think we’ll play our best volleyball,” he said. “Whether it’ll be enough or not, I don’t know. But I’m confident that if we play our best volleyball, then in some ways — I wouldn’t say I don’t care, because we all want to win — but again, we can’t control that.”
Inside what he could control, he tried to treat everything as normal. Some things were not, of course: For the postseason, the NCAA logo was printed on the court. The court itself was brought out just for the weekend. Thursday, the NCAA held a special pre-regional media session.
“There’s instincts in you to want to go, ‘Hey, we gotta make this more important,’ or ‘We’ve got to do this differently,’ but I think that’s the wrong approach. I think for us, we want to just make it normal.”
Michigan knew how to do that — it had done so all year. In Rosen’s eyes, that was one of the qualities that made this team so successful. Led by fifth-year seniors Kelly Murphy and Ally Davis and senior Abby Cole, the Wolverines kept their perspective all season.
They had to, in the ruthless Big Ten. The Wolverines lost five matches against top-three teams, including two in five sets, most recently Nov. 20 at No. 2 Minnesota.
Rosen did not try to make that feel normal. “This hurts a lot, but it should,” he recalled telling his team. “If you care a lot and you put a lot into it, it’s gonna hurt.”
Earlier this season, he compared the nation’s toughest conference to a “meat grinder,” and his team’s schedule was never tougher than in the last three weekends. That span consisted of five matches against top-15 teams — No. 1 Nebraska, No. 2 Minnesota, No. 3 Wisconsin and Michigan State twice — and only one win, against the then-14th-ranked Spartans at home. A 1-4 finish to the regular season was not an ideal way to enter the NCAA Tournament.
“But you would have never known from looking at our team in the way that they practiced, or the way they prepared or the way they even played in matches,” Rosen said. “They never looked down. We were a little worried about that going into it — how’s that going to be with our confidence if we don’t win more of these? And our team never once looked affected by it in a negative way.”
That stretch told Rosen all he needed to know heading into the postseason. His team hosted the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009 and dispatched American and Oregon to move onto the Sweet 16. It moved onto Austin, where it hoped to have the chance to avenge the loss from four years ago and return to that level.
Rosen did not know how it would go. About half of his team played in the NCAA Tournament last year, but his eight freshmen didn’t. They were all playing in a new gym. They knew they were playing a good team, but they hoped that if they played their game, it would be good enough.
For most of the year, that worked. They prepared the same way, played the same way and split the first four sets with the 21st-ranked Blue Jays.
They fell behind in the fifth set, 9-3, and yet in the timeout, their mindset was the same. Rosen took a knee in front of his team and calmly gave instructions, trying to keep spirits up. “All that matters is that we win the next point,” he said. “All night long, the next point is all we can win. Let’s just win this point.”
Michigan did, forcing a lift call on the ensuing play. But the deficit was too much to overcome, as Creighton landed a kill just inside the boundary to end the match. Again, the Wolverines’ demeanor was the same. Rosen shook the opposing coaches’ hands, high-fived his players one by one and then turned and walked to the locker room, head down.
The tournament run that had so much promise, that looked like it could bring back memories of 2012, ended for the Wolverines. They knew what they had to do, and they did it; it just wasn’t enough. Their season ended short of the 2012 level they thought was possible. That hurt, and as Rosen said, it should.