Going into their matchup with perennial powerhouse No. 3 Nebraska, the No. 24 Michigan volleyball team knew it was being thrown into the frying pan. But, after both of the Wolverines’ middle blockers — senior Jess Robinson and sophomore Jacques Boney — were blocked in the Cornhuskers’ 11-3 opening run, they realized they were fully in the fire.
Nebraska is such a tough opponent, in part, because of its strength from the service line. The Cornhuskers recorded six service aces to Michigan’s zero, but the pressure they put on the Wolverines’ passers was apparent throughout the entire game. Suboptimal passes took away some of junior setter Scottee Johnson’s options and speed. Michigan had to rely on junior outside hitters Jess Mruzik and Kendall Murray scoring against a fully formed Nebraska block.
“I thought our team stayed really aggressive, which was really important,” Michigan coach Mark Rosen said. “(Nebraska’s) a team that, when they’re blocking really well and they’re playing great defense, they can kind of make you want to back off a little bit.”
Indeed, playing aggressive is just what Michigan did. Mruzik and Murray didn’t hit timidly against the Nebraska block, but the Cornhuskers’ defense allows the lowest opponent hitting percentage in the nation. Playing aggressively against them is bound to yield good, bad and ugly results. Mruzik hit .025, her lowest percentage of the season. There were times when she and Murray committed errors or were blocked. There were times when Nebraska libero Lexi Rodriguez turned sure-fire Michigan kills into Nebraska points. Still, Murray stressed the value of an aggressive mindset:
“Being able to stay aggressive is what kind of drives our team,” Murray said. “When we’re scoring out of system, it’s not only energetic, but it also gives our setters confidence, it gives our liberos confidence, like it just feeds off throughout the entire team.”
The Wolverines demonstrated their ability to stay confident in the second set. Following a disheartening 25-14 first set loss, Michigan bounced back in the second set. Notably, with the set tied 20-20, Mruzik ended a long rally with a kill. In a high pressure situation, Mruzik and the Wolverines reaped the benefits of their maintained confidence and took back the momentum. While they went on to lose 26-24, they took the Cornhuskers to their brink.
“They executed a little bit better that time, but I don’t think we did anything wrong,” Rosen said. “I was really proud of how we played that set.”
In the second set, Michigan proved they could hang with the best of the best in the NCAA. While the box score shows a definitive loss, there were lessons learned for the Wolverines.
“I thought we saw a lot of good things tonight,” Mruzik said. “When things aren’t necessarily going our way, keeping connected and keeping that eye contact and I thought tonight we did a really good job.”
Despite their ability to come together as a team, the Wolverines would lose the third set, 25-19. Nebraska looked more polished, and it showed in the box score. As a team, the Cornhuskers had a .330 hitting percentage compared to the Wolverines’ .184. They were able to turn quality passing into kills, registering a sideout percentage 20 points higher than Michigan throughout the match.
“We weren’t as clean as they were and that’s where we need to get better,” Rosen said. “(We) played the way we wanted to play, even though we didn’t get the result we wanted.”
While Michigan may have felt the heat, they have already proven they can beat the best of the best, upsetting No. 9 Penn State on Sept. 24. However, ranked No. 24, the Wolverines have yet to stake their claim as a member of that upper echelon. While the result against Nebraska may not bolster its case, the lessons learned from the game may help Michigan as it continues conference play in a difficult Big Ten conference.