Out of the 16 games in the second round of the NCAA Women’s Volleyball Tournament, only three were won by lower seeded teams — and Michigan was not one of them.
After sweeping Northern Kentucky (19-13) Friday night, the 22nd-ranked Wolverines (21-11) fell to No. 11 Kentucky (25-6) in straight sets Saturday night, as the Wildcats out-hit Michigan, .323 to .146, and sided-out over 15 percent higher.
But this was expected. The Wolverines were supposed to beat Northern Kentucky. Michigan was supposed to lose to Kentucky. That is exactly how the Wolverines’ season has gone, nearly without fail; they have beaten the teams they were meant to beat and have lost to the teams they were meant to lose to.
Michigan’s record against the five Big Ten teams that finished above it in the standings — Wisconsin, Nebraska, Minnesota, Penn State and Purdue — was a combined 0-7. Its record against the eight teams that ranked below it? 13-0.
So when the Wolverines arrived in Lexington, Kentucky for their fifth-straight NCAA tournament appearance, the outcome was all-but decided. They were going to beat Northern Kentucky in the school’s first-ever tournament berth, and they were going to lose to Kentucky, which touted the SEC player of the year and libero of the year — Leah Edmond and Gabby Curry, respectively.
But that doesn’t mean that Michigan coach Mark Rosen was disappointed in the outcome.
“I’m really proud of this team,” Rosen said. “Tonight’s a frustrating night. It’s a difficult night but when you get to a point like this when the season’s coming to an end. I think you have to look at the big picture, and the big picture is this group. This group came a long way … I’m really proud of how far they’ve come. I think that I couldn’t be more appreciative of what this group’s done.”
The group did what it was supposed to be able to do — no more, no less. And now, after the season is over, Rosen and his players will move on to the next season, but not without any losses.
The Wolverines are losing seven seniors — out of 18 total players on the roster — four of which started in the weekend’s NCAA tournament matches. This includes Big Ten first-team setter, MacKenzi Welsh and Big Ten second-team middle blocker Cori Crocker. In a large senior class, the loss is sizeable, but the seniors aren’t leaving without making their mark.
“I thought this group really did a great job of stepping up to be senior leaders and senior veterans and really set a great course for our young players coming in,” Rosen said. “It’s been a great group.”
The young group is anchored by sophomore outside hitter Paige Jones. In only her second season, she was unanimously named to the All-Big Ten First Team and leads Michigan in kills and service aces.
Among the freshman, outside hitter May Pertofsky and middle blocker Jess Robinson were named to the Big Ten All-Freshmen team after strong freshman seasons. This group also includes players that haven’t seen the court as much this year, but show promise. Players such as freshman defensive specialist Amber Beals who got her chance to prove herself against Kentucky.
“We were subbing a lot in the sets, more than me normally do,” Rosen said. “Unfortunately it didn’t work, but I thought the players that went in really were ready to go in and try to get an impact, and I thought Amber did a great job.”
At the end of a season that went as expected, Rosen looks forward to his 22nd season as Michigan’s head coach and looks to a core of young players to fill the positions left open by the graduating seniors — but not without reflecting first.
“I think they’ve been a really fun team to work with,” Rosen said. “They work hard every day. They’re good personalities. They’re team players. So I really am super proud of this team and very appreciative of what they’ve done for our program and Michigan athletics.”