- Patrick Barron/Daily
By Greg Garno, Daily Sports Writer
Published December 4, 2012
The Michigan volleyball team has harped on its strong conference schedule all year, explaining that it would pay off in December.
Now that it’s December, that strength couldn’t be more evident after six of seven Big Ten teams that made the NCAA Tournament advanced to the Sweet 16.
Deep into the tournament, Michigan will also face an opponent its already seen twice this season. More importantly, it faces an in-state rival, Michigan State, putting more pressure on a team that looks to continue its hot streak.
Or so you would think.
“I’m not throwing coaching clichés out there, but to me in the NCAA Tournament it’s just about advancing,” said Michigan coach Mark Rosen. “I don’t care if we’re playing a team we’ve never played before or a team we’re playing right up the street, like (Michigan State). We need to advance. Everybody becomes your rival.”
On Friday, the Wolverines will compete in their fifth regional semifinal in program history when they face off against the Spartans, following victories over Tennessee and No. 9 Louisville the previous weekend. Ironically, though, Michigan will have to travel across the country to Berkeley, Calif. to face Michigan State, instead of driving an hour up I-96 to face the Spartans.
The Wolverines split the series against the Spartans this season, losing at home in straight sets before winning in straight sets in East Lansing to close out the season. Michigan trails the all-time series, 47-36, though neither team has played the other in the postseason.
“It’s kind of funny having to go all the way across the country to play a team that’s an hour away,” said junior outside hitter Molly Toon. “I think it’s definitely going to be a fun game, but at this point it’s just another team in the way.”
For some Wolverines, Friday’s contest will be more than just another postseason game, it will be a homecoming, as freshman libero Tiffany Morales and junior defensive specialist Ally Sabol hail from the Golden State.
Morales opted to have her parents wait a weekend and skip the trip to Louisville to see her play in person. Now, the member of the All-Big Ten freshman team will have the opportunity to see her family and friends this weekend.
“My parents asked me ‘So, do you want us to come?’ ” Morales said.
Morales told them, “I have confidence in my team and I know you have confidence in my team. I believe we’re going to make it to you guys next week.’ ”
Morales has been a solid defensive player for Michigan during its late-season run. The libero led her team in digs in both postseason games with 19 against Tennessee and 17 against Louisville.
The Wolverines hope to continue to ride the strong play of junior outside hitter Lexi Erwin and Toon for offensive production — the pair accounted for half of the team’s points in both postseason matches.
Erwin, the team leader in kills this season, has not let off the gas against the strongest conference in the country. On Tuesday, the American Volleyball Coaches Association selected Erwin as an honorable mention to the All-Mideast Region team after she was named a member of the All-Big Ten team last week.
Toon, on the other hand, has recently become a more consistent force after waiting to find her place during Michigan’s offensive renovations. Toon took advantage of the Cardinals’ smaller blockers in Friday’s game, allowing the Wolverines to jump out to quick leads.
“I think (my performance) has been building up the entire year,” Toon said. “I don’t think it was one thing that just switched. Its just all come together in the end.”
Junior middle blocker Jennifer Cross was named to the AVCA All-Mideast Region team Tuesday after playing in every set this season. Along with freshman middle blocker Krystalyn Goode, opposing teams have no relief for a force at the middle of the net.
Michigan State runs a 6-2 offense that features three hitters, making blocking more of a challenge against teams that rely on just a pair. However, the duo has combined for 267 total blocks throughout the season, enough for over half of the Wolverines’ total.
One area of concern for Michigan will be its serving errors. During the first and second rounds, Michigan struggled to keep the ball in play, which ended runs or allowed the momentum to shift. The Wolverines had nine serving errors in both games, but that doesn’t surprise the veteran coach.
“We’re going to miss some serves because we’re going to serve aggressively,” Rosen said. “I didn’t really feel like there was any point in the two matches where I felt like that was getting away from us, but we need to keep serving tough. I never think we’re good enough. I always think we have things to improve on.”
Michigan would play the winner of the match between No. 15 Iowa State and No. 2 Stanford game on Saturday night should it advance. The idea of adjusting quickly doesn’t frighten the Wolverines, though, who are accustomed to making quick changes or adjusting on bus rides between conference games.
Michigan (25-11) won’t be the only Big Ten team to play a conference foe in the tournament. Minnesota travels to Purdue to face the Boilermakers with the winner advancing to possibly face Penn State. With all the depth, it may feel like the NCAA Tournament has become a Big Ten Tournament.
“People say all the time, like Tennessee’s coach before the match, ‘The SEC is so much more like the Big Ten now,’ ” Rosen said. “But in the back of my mind I’m going ‘No. You’re not.’ They shouldn’t be going ‘Oh we aren’t as good as the Big Ten,’ but the reality is that they’re not. The Big Ten is the best conference in the country and it shows now that we’ve got six teams left in the NCAA Tournament.”