WEST LAFAYETTE — The final nail in the Michigan volleyball team’s coffin Saturday night was a service ace, courtesy of Purdue defensive specialist Blaire Bashen.
That final kill whipped the Boilermakers’ student section into a frenzy. The crazed fans — basking in the scoreboard’s bright red glow of Purdue 3, Michigan 0 — looked as though they were about to tear the stands apart board by board.
With blank expressions the Wolverines stuck to routine — they shook hands, collected bags and jogged into the locker room.
For all the plays and scenarios that Michigan coach Mark Rosen ran his team through, he never taught it how to lose. After a spectacular undefeated preseason and conference opener, perhaps he believed it never would.
The 18th-ranked Wolverines lost to No. 13 Purdue in three sets, dropping each of the first two sets by the same 26-24. Both teams handily won their conference openers the night before, with Michigan sweeping Indiana in three sets and the Boilermakers dismantling Michigan State in similar fashion. Both the Wolverines and Purdue also had undefeated records entering the weekend and shared the label of having strong offenses. But the Boilermakers managed to find that slight edge to put it away.
“You don’t learn stuff from succeeding all the time,” Rosen said. “You learn a hell of a lot more from losing. It’s all about the process. It’s a long season, and we are looking to be the best team we can be by the end of the year. Tonight we failed at some things, but we have to learn from those failures and go from there.”
Prior to the game, Purdue’s Associate Athletics Communications Director Wendy Mayer laid out what she believed to be the Boilermakers’ plan of attack.
“We are looking to shut down (senior outside hitter) Alex Hunt,” Mayer said. “We want to make her invisible. She’s burned us too many times in the past.”
The Boilermakers did exactly that — Hunt had a season low of two kills in the first set that ended up contributing to a total of seven kills over the course of the match. Although sophomore middle blocker Jennifer Cross picked up the slack, leading the pack with nine kills overall, it wasn’t enough to put Michigan over the top.
The match was relatively even with the exception of two key aspects — attack errors and blocking. The Wolverines earned twice as many attack errors as Purdue, and the Boilermakers doubled Michigan’s blocks.
The inverse correlation was no accident.
Purdue had one of the biggest front lines Michigan has seen all season. It wasn’t particularly tall, but it was quick in the air. If a team can be up in the air quickly, it can block more attempts, put the opponent on its heels, and cause its players to augment their shots and force errors.
The Wolverines knew this formula well, because they are usually the ones imposing their will on other teams. The shoe didn’t fit so well on the other foot this weekend.
In sharing his feelings on the game, Rosen harkened back to a quote by Hunt, which she uttered two weeks ago over dinner after the Pepperdine win:
“Boy, what a difference two points can make,” Hunt said.
Those words haunted Rosen in the locker room after that third and final set. Two points in the other direction in either the first or second set could have yielded an entirely different result.
“(If we had won) Purdue would have been in the locker room before set three asking themselves some tough questions,” Rosen said. “Then we could have jumped on them in game three, and gutted out the win.
“What you’re seeing is the frailty of athletics. We’re all just walking on a balance beam. The wind is blowing, and it could go either way. We just have to find a way to win.”