Down two sets to one, Michigan volleyball needed a win to keep the match alive.
As junior outside hitter May Pertofsky rose up to serve, the crowd went silent. The Minnesota defense responded, sending the ball back over the net, requiring sophomore libero Hannah Grant to do the splits to keep the rally alive. Sophomore setter Scottie Johnson set the ball, and sophomore outside hitter Jess Mruzik walked on air, delivering a vicious spike. The Gophers tried to track the ball down, but it hit off of the chest of the outside hitter, and the ball trickled to the score table. Point Michigan.
The Wolverines took this momentum and knocked out No. 8 ranked Minnesota in five sets, their first match against a ranked opponent this season, and their first win against a top ten opponent since November of 2018.
After Michigan took a commanding lead in the first set, the Gophers fought back to make it 2-1 going into the fourth set. The Wolverines knew they needed to win the next set if they had any chance of winning the match, so they kicked it into gear.
“We got more kills. That was big,” Michigan coach Mark Rosen said. “We use the term ‘dig to kill.’ When we dig a ball, we got to turn that ball into a kill if we can. If we’re just putting the ball back in play, at this level in the Big Ten, they’re gonna get a kill, so you’ve got to be able to dig to kill, and I thought we did that really well.”
Michigan got a lot of help in the fourth set from players who typically aren’t relied upon to get kills. Junior middleback Jess Robinson started the set off with two block assists, including a solo block. Freshman middleback Jaque Boney followed Robinson up with three solo blocks. Even sophomore opposite hitter Kendall Murray got into the mix with a kill of her own.
“Once we get those middles involved and our setters, it’s almost impossible for blockers to pick up on things and defend us,” Mruzik said. “Our middles did a great job today. That’s something we’ve been working a lot on in practice and throughout the preseason, and the beginning of this season is getting those middles involved and making sure that their presence is known. Once they start going, it opens our whole offense.”
Although Mruzik heaped praise on her teammates, she was the one leading the charge in the fourth set that ultimately won the match. With six kills in the fourth set alone, including the match point, Mruzik put the team on her back and was the sparkplug for the Wolverines.
Mruzik was dominant as she attacked the backline and the sidelines. But with Minnesota focused on preventing the easy kills and getting its blocks, holes opened up and Mruzik took advantage.
“When we played them the first time, I went back and watched what happened in that match,” Mruzik said. “I picked out some spots that they weren’t necessarily picking up on so I really tried to highlight that in this match.”
Added Rosen: “They just kept plugging away. I thought Jess Mruzik was great in that situation. Scottie was great in that situation, you know, just a lot of kids stepping up. We’re seeing some really good development with this team and character.”
The momentum the Wolverines gained in the fourth set was too much for the Gophers to handle as Michigan carried it over to the fifth set to win the match.