If you’ve heard it once this year, you’ve heard it a thousand times.
COVID-19 related challenges in the Michigan volleyball team (3-3 Big Ten) continue to interrupt their 2021 season, as the Wolverines returned from yet another handful of postponements to defeat Indiana (3-13 Big Ten) in five sets (25-22, 25-22, 23-25, 21-25, 15-11).
When Michigan’s starting lineup stepped onto the court Friday night, its choice to play wearing masks symbolized the abundance of excuses available in case of a rusty start. After all, the Wolverines had participated in a third as many games as the Hoosiers and had not played at all for two weeks. Coaches Mark and Leisa Rosen returned from an even longer pause, as they missed Michigan’s last games against Maryland due to contact tracing precautions.
But the play on the court that soon followed resoundingly proved such excuses unnecessary, as the Wolverines’ constant control contrasted starkly with the intermittent nature of their season.
“When you constantly have stops and starts and stops and starts, it really makes it impossible to have the normal progressions of a season,” Rosen said. “We know we can’t control a lot of these things, so we focus on what we can control, and I’m really proud of this group and how they’ve managed all those challenges.”
Tackling a working force toward managing these difficulties is an indispensable asset, and for Michigan, the first place that lies is in the very player who dons the No. 1 uniform.
Junior outside hitter Paige Jones punched a historic dent into the stat sheet Friday, tallying a program single-match record with 37 kills — a title last held by Sarah Behnke in 1999. Adding to the dominance, Jones put up career highs in points (38.5) and assists (3).
Following the game, however, Jones was quick to humbly exemplify her role as the Wolverines’ captain.
“Obviously it’s great, but I couldn’t do it without the other five people on the court with me,” Jones said. “We passed great tonight, which really helped, as their middle was then having to worry about our middle because we were in system.”
Although the point scores may indicate a constant back-and-forth, the impressive composure instilled by Jones’s leadership propelled Michigan to a secure two-set lead. The Wolverines soon reached the brink of securing the sweep with another 25-22 score, but the errors piled up high enough to briefly turn the tide towards Indiana.
While the persistent composure exhibited in this game has the potential to take Michigan far this season, it cannot replicate the growth gained from experience — something that this season has not provided an already-inexperienced Wolverine roster. This manifested in 45 of the 75 total errors in the game.
“We haven’t (played a back-to-back weekend) a lot yet, because we haven’t had that many matches, but there’s some things we’ve got to adjust (for Saturday),” Rosen said. “I thought we missed some serving streak opportunities because we missed a lot of second serves so that we couldn’t get on a run. They served us into trouble as well, so there are some things to clean up.”
Such service disparities were exacerbated in the fourth set, especially under the streaks of Hoosiers libero Haley Armstrong. This gave Indiana another set victory to send the game into a deciding fifth set.
During the final set, the Wolverines found their footing. Jones and junior middle blocker Kayla Bair traded kills once again, sophomore setter Maddie Dowd contributed a career-high in assists, and junior outside hitter Abbey Malinowski posted career-best totals in her first Michigan start.
Through this barrage of performances, a silver lining to that mid-game stumble emerged: A young team playing a season riddled with sudden postponements gained two additional sets of experience, an invaluable asset for addressing future miscues.
“If we can win in three, that’d be awesome, but it’s just getting more experience if we play five sets, so we’re thinking of that as a positive,” Jones said. “We’re just happy to come out and play to win some matches.”
In this roller coaster of a year that has caused these end-of-season matches to act as early-season ones for the Wolverines, that is all they can ask for.
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