In gritty slugfest, Wolverines make hostile environment their own

Patrick Barron/Daily
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By Jake Lourim, Daily Sports Writer
Published October 23, 2013

EAST LANSING — Six thousand, one hundred and eighty-three people stood, watched and yelled. Every moment, whenever the ball hit a Michigan State player’s hand, the crowd was ready to explode.

And it didn’t faze Molly Toon.

“In my mind, I pretend they’re cheering for us,” said the Michigan senior outside hitter. “It’s just a little trick that I have. It’s fun.”

Wednesday, the Michigan volleyball team had to win by taking every one of Michigan State’s punches and punching back. And that was difficult at times, because 6,000 people were rooting for them not to do so.

On three set points and a handful of others, the Michigan State crowd thought every bounce would go its way — every attack attempt, every block attempt, every set.

But every time, Michigan had just enough to keep it alive. At one point, the ball simply bounced off freshman middle blocker Abby Cole’s hand by accident, right to senior outside hitter Lexi Erwin.

“We have to win some like that,” said Michigan coach Mark Rosen. “We’re not going to win every one pretty.”

Michigan State pulled away to win the first set, 25-20, and looked like it could hand Michigan its sixth Big Ten loss. It certainly had the chances to do it.

But the Wolverines wouldn’t die. They won the last three sets, 25-22, 26-24, 32-30.

When Michigan made the 60-mile trip to East Lansing, got through the rain and cold and stepped into a packed Jenison Field House, it knew it was getting into an all-out war. It was a true test of willpower, of who wanted the 26th point more, then the 27th, then the 28th and so on, until Erwin’s final kill dropped and 6,183 people stood stunned.

In that war, the Wolverines were playing on the wrong turf. In that war, the Wolverines had five match points — all they had to do was finish one.

Of course, the atmosphere didn’t make it easy.

“This has always been really loud,” Toon said. “Ohio State is really loud, but this is really loud.”

There were so many points at which Michigan could have fallen apart on its rival’s home court. Starting at 13-12 in the fourth set — when a Michigan State serve initially ruled out was overruled by the referee — Rosen argued into a yellow card, and then he sent Erwin over to argue the call.

Of course, it was Erwin with the kill on the very next point.

The Spartans had the first set point, and all 6,000 rose and cheered. Michigan State outside hitter Lauren Wicinski hit a ball to the corner. The referee ruled it out, and the crowd erupted.

From there, everything descended into turmoil.

A reporter asked Toon after the game if the game ended up being decided by who made the last play. It ended up being decided by who made the late play, then another, then another.

“We ran out of subs, so some people had to play back row that normally don’t,” Erwin said. “We knew we had to figure out a way to win.”

Toon set up a match point with a kill, but Michigan State fought it off with another kill. Toon set up another match point with a tip, but Cole committed two straight hitting errors to give the Spartans an opportunity.

“You just have to let things go really quick,” Cole said. “I just made a couple bonehead mistakes at the end, but my team was there to cover for me, and that’s what teams do.”

Five tension-filled points later, Erwin finished off the match with back-to-back kills. Increasingly, as the final points continued, the fans could not believe what they were watching.

Yet, 15 minutes later, Rosen emerged from the locker room, appearing calm and collected.

“I don’t really notice that (noise),” Rosen said. “I didn’t notice if our band played tonight. Somebody said they did, but I don’t remember them playing at all.”

The game started off as a coach’s worst nightmare — a sloppy, gritty slugfest. More than two hours later, his team won that sloppy, gritty slugfest.

He took it. He knew his team kept fighting back. The Wolverines stole the match from the Michigan State players and the 6,183 fans who witnessed it in wonder.