The boot, the sweatshirt and the glum expression on junior outside hitter Alex Hunt’s face said it all.
With the Michigan volleyball team’s most dominant hitter sitting on the bench, what little magic left in a season that had started out with so much promise was gone.
No. 23 Michigan (23-10 overall) lost, 3-0, to No. 11 Washington (22-8) on Thursday night at the Bank of America Arena in Seattle, Wash. during the first round of the NCAA tournament. The loss brought the Wolverines’ postseason hopes to a disappointing end and marked the first time in four seasons Michigan has failed to progress beyond the first round.
The typical storylines applied. Young players made youthful mistakes. The hitters couldn’t get past their blocks. The team committed 13 service errors. Senior setter Lexi Zimmerman ran all over the court, looking like she was pulling out all the stops to will one more game out of her collegiate career.
But it wasn’t enough, and as the last point sailed out of bounds and the poorly filled stands let out tepid applause, the question that had been on everyone’s minds from the start of the match now hung palpably.
What if Hunt had been healthy?
“(This was) absolutely a winnable match (if Hunt had played),” Michigan coach Mark Rosen said following the loss. “It would have been nice to have her go on one of her 20-kill tirades because that really changes the whole game.”
The Wolverines had only a week to practice with their adjusted lineup after Hunt rolled her ankle during the regular season finale at Northwestern on Nov. 27. Rosen was forced to call upon freshman outside hitter Lexi Erwin and redshirt junior middle blocker Karlee Bruck to fill the void.
And for a brief moment, the Michigan offense held strong. Despite six service errors during the first set, the Wolverines appeared to dictate the pace of the game. The hitters came out swinging with confidence and caught the Huskies’ defense out of position on multiple occasions. Erwin tallied five straight kills without an error, and freshman middle blocker Jennifer Cross provided key hits to establish herself as an additional threat.
But the fresh energy and aggressiveness couldn’t overcome the experience and consistency of a veteran Washington team.
As the match progressed, the Huskies picked on Michigan’s youth by serving to the younger players and knocked the Wolverines out of system in the passing game. The hitters eventually faltered and lofted their hits out of bounds. Costly service errors prevented Michigan from holding any momentum. Eventually, Washington’s game plan looked as if it was simply to let the Wolverines beat themselves, which they did more and more efficiently in each set.
“It’s funny because I thought the stuff we did the worse was what they have no control over, which was serving,” Rosen said. “It’s the one part of the game that they do not have an effect on. The ironic part is that it’s such a big part of our game and who we are. We haven’t had a match like that all year; it was completely out of the blue.”
Perhaps the only bright spot for Michigan was the performance of the back row defenders. The defense kept the team alive in tight rallies when the offense sputtered. Junior libero Sloane Donhoff posted 12 digs and senior libero Maggie Busch tallied nine.