Seven banners hang on the wall of Cliff Keen Arena celebrating the Michigan volleyball team’s NCAA Tournament appearances.
But when this season’s banner is raised, it will be different from all the others. Rather than commemorating a first- or second-round exit, this season’s banner, at the very least, will mark an accomplishment no Michigan volleyball team has ever achieved before – an appearance in the Sweet 16.
Not only does tonight’s match against No. 1 Penn State mark the Wolverines’ first ever NCAA Sweet 16 showing, but it could be the first time they walk off the court in State College victorious.
Michigan has been unsuccessful there in each of its 16 tries. The Nittany Lions (20-0 Big Ten, 30-2 overall) proved the nation’s volleyball powerhouse this season. Sitting comfortably at No. 1 since Oct. 29, Penn State boasts five hitters taller than 6-foot-2 and four players on the 12-member AVCA First Team All-Mideast Region.
“I think what’s most important for us is just going in there believing that we can win and playing as hard as we possibly can and good things will happen,” senior co-captain Lyndsay Miller said.
Michigan (10-10, 24-10) enters the Sweet 16 fresh off its 3-0 NCAA second-round upset of No. 21 Colorado State. Saturday’s victory was the Wolverines’ first over a ranked opponent since their season opener over then-No. 10 Hawaii in late August.
Instead of celebrating the unexpected sweep, Michigan quickly switched its mindset to the next round of the tournament.
“It was really quick, literally seconds, from when we went in the locker room. You could feel the shift from excitement to anticipation of what’s next,” Michigan coach Mark Rosen said. “That’s something I’m really proud of because it would be easy for them to shut down now and enjoy the process.”
Michigan has played its best volleyball of late. Winning seven of its last 10 games, the team has overcome a mid-season lapse in which it went 4-7 and showcased the winning skill and determination that allowed it get off to a 13-0 start.
“We’ve finished strong,” Rosen said. “That’s something we talk about all the time within our program, players as well as the coaches, about the sign of a good team – a team that is playing their best volleyball at the end of the year, not the beginning. They don’t want to stop playing, and I certainly don’t want to stop coaching them.”