The Michigan volleyball team entered its match Wednesday night with upset on its mind. It entered 2-0 in the Big Ten, coming off a historic 3-0 sweep against No. 9 Penn State. The Wolverines (11-2, 2-1 Big Ten) hoped to ride that momentum into another upset win over No. 6 Ohio State (6-5, 2-1).
But ultimately Michigan couldn’t pull off another win and suffered its first Big Ten loss, 3-1, despite battling until the very end.
“Our expectations are to play well and give ourselves a chance to beat any team we’re playing,” Michigan coach Mark Rosen said. “So I think that that was where we were tonight.”
From the get-go, the Wolverines and Buckeyes traded leads every couple points — there were twelve ties and six lead changes in the first set alone. The tense back-and-forth made for a set with an unpredictable outcome until the set point.
But every time that Michigan had an opportunity to take the lead, a service or attacking error kept the set within reach for Ohio State. The Wolverines hit .149 in the first set, far less than their season average of .288. Senior middle blocker Jess Robinson was the exception, hitting .857 in the set with six kills on seven attempts.
The Buckeyes only took control of the set at 22-21, where they closed out on a three-point streak to win it 25-22.
“Tonight showed that we needed to be a little steadier,” Rosen said. “Some of that’s physical, just physically being able to execute over and over and over again when teams are putting pressure on you. But some of it’s also mental, just staying in the moment, staying in that point.”
Michigan entered the second set playing scrappy, fighting for points and extending rallies. But as the set wore on, Ohio State went on a 7-1 streak to take a commanding 12-5 lead.
“I thought tonight a few times we got in ruts or they’re scoring streaks of points,” Rosen said. “That’s something we really want to try and eliminate. Teams are going to get a point here, point there, but when we give up streaks of it, that’s where it gets hard to get back.”
The Wolverines didn’t quit just yet, responding with a 4-0 run of their own powered by Robinson. Robinson had two blocks — one solo — and one kill to keep Michigan in it, but her efforts weren’t enough to overcome the Wolverines’ momentum-killing errors.
Every time that Michigan looked primed to generate momentum and bring the set within reach, an error stole the momentum away. Two service errors and three attacking errors at crucial moments prevented the Wolverines from a rebound in the second set as the Buckeyes dominated, 25-18.
Despite being down two sets, Michigan entered the third set with confidence and determination.
“We went into the locker room, and (our captains) were like, ‘we are winning this set,’ like, ‘this game is not over,’ ” Robinson said. “So I think just the leadership on the court and just the way we like took a deep breath, we handled it and I think that really just turned us around.”
Out of the break, the Wolverines showed that fight and their energy picked up. Tied at nine, Michigan — powered by three blocks — won nine of the next twelve points, and never looked back. That commanding lead only built and the Wolverines took the third set, 25-17.
The fourth set began just as tightly-contested as each preceding one, with Michigan and Buckeyes trading off each of the first six points. Ohio State took what appeared to be a commanding 17-8 lead, simply outplaying the Wolverines with dominance at the net and in its attack.
But Michigan fought back, cutting the Buckeye lead to one, forcing a timeout at 18-17.
Ohio State came out of the timeout guns blazing. Robinson came back with another kill, but her efforts fell short.
Ultimately, the early deficit cost the Wolverines the set and the match as they lost, 25-21.
“Every single match is going to be a fight,” Mruzik said. “(In the Big Ten), you’re playing basically a top 25 team every single time you step out on the court, so you have to have some sort of grit, some sort of fight. And I think this team … we are super gritty and we know how to connect with each other and really dial it in and know that every time the whistle blows, we have a chance to win that point.”
That grit will serve Michigan well as it prepares to take on the rest of the Big Ten. In such a competitive conference — where six teams are ranked in the top 25 — it will take tenacity and resilience to compete for every point of the match.
Despite the outcome tonight, the Wolverines showed a glimpse of the team they can be. If they continue to display that grit while limiting the array of costly errors, they should be able compete in the Big Ten.