As the Wolverines’ final attack went flying out of bounds, the mostly fan-less Cliff Keen Arena was eerily quiet. Purdue’s side erupted briefly in cheers; Michigan’s last lineup of the night walked silently off the court to a dejected sideline, who gave their teammates some final words of encouragement.
Consisting in large part of freshmen who had yet to play a collegiate game, the Michigan (0-1 Big Ten) women’s volleyball team fought tooth and nail in its season opener Saturday night, but that ultimately wasn’t enough for the more experienced Purdue squad, whose clean play led them to a four-set win.
The No. 11 Boilermakers (3-4) were unable to pull away at any point, but outperformed the young Wolverines in key areas, blocking 17 shots to Michigan’s four and committing just 16 errors to the Wolverines’ 30.
Due to their first six matches of the season being delayed, the Wolverines were taking the court against another team for the first time since December 2019, working at a notable disadvantage after only practicing against each other for over a year.
“In your own gym, in practice, you’re playing kind of in a mirror,” Michigan coach Mark Rosen said. “You play a different team and you sort of realize, ‘Oh, ok, here’s the stuff we’ve got to get better at.’ ”
The two teams began neck and neck, and their play stayed that way for almost the entire match. Purdue won all of its winning sets by a small 25-22 margin, and although the Boilermakers remained in control for much of the evening, neither team had a particularly commanding lead at any point.
Despite Michigan’s persistence, Purdue prevailed with consistent play all around on both offense and defense. The Boilermakers displayed their shot-blocking abilities throughout the match, and with a 0.271 hitting percentage and four players reaching double digits in kills, they wore Michigan’s defense down, peppering them with attacks and forcing them to lay out for balls on what felt like every play.
The Wolverines mounted an epic comeback in the third set, winning five match points in a row to tie the game and then adding two more points to force a fourth set. Rosen’s squad worked the Boilermakers hard in the fourth, bringing themselves within a point at 23-22, but consecutive errors — one handling, one attacking — stopped them short of taking the match to five sets and gave Purdue the win.
Freshman Jess Mruzik, the 2019-2020 Gatorade National Volleyball Player of the Year, led the Wolverines with 21 kills and showed flashes of greatness for her new team, who ran much of their offense through her whenever she occupied the court.
“I thought she was outstanding,” Rosen said. “Her numbers were huge tonight. I was really proud of how she came into it and just did what Jess does.”
Although they were only able to win one set, the Wolverines’ performance was encouraging for Rosen given the circumstances.
“We didn’t have a lot of expectations because we hadn’t played in 14 months … but I thought we played really well,” Rosen said. “Heck, we hit .225, that’s a pretty good number. But they blocked a lot of balls because when we weren’t in system, when we weren’t fluid with what we were doing, they made us pay. So that’s a great opportunity for us to get better.”
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