Before Friday’s game, it was clear that No. 13-seed St. Louis’s scouting report on the Michigan volleyball team was to focus on junior outside hitter Juliana Paz.
But the 21st-ranked Billikens must have missed the fine print about Michigan’s offensive versatility.
“We have so many weapons,” sophomore setter Lexi Zimmerman said. “We’re so well-balanced that if they stop a certain facet of our game we can go somewhere else.”
The 19th-ranked Wolverines (26-8) received clutch offensive performances from senior middle blocker Beth Karpiak and junior right side hitter Megan Bower in their come-from-behind five-set win against St. Louis (29-5). Michigan will advance to the Sweet 16 in Seattle for the second straight year, playing No. 4 Nebraska on Friday.
“We didn’t play our best volleyball tonight,” Michigan coach Mark Rosen said. “But I liked the way we competed all night.”
Thursday night, Michigan defeated Kentucky in five sets. Paz registered a team-high 22 kills in the winning effort.
Her strong performance caused St. Louis blockers to key on her early against the Wolverines.
The Billikens’ strategy didn’t completely stop the Porto Alegre, Brazil, native. She still chipped in 13 kills in the match.
But St. Louis’s added focus only meant Karpiak and Bower had to pick up the slack.
“Juliana went off Friday night,” Bower said. “That really opened the door for us. Their focus on our outside hitters allowed holes for other hitters to step up.”
Down 11-9 in the fifth frame, it seemed Karpiak and Michigan’s season was coming to a close in Lexington, Ky.
But the Wolverines are used to these situations.
Down 2-1 in the match against Kentucky, Michigan rallied to win in five sets. The team played in five-set matches a handful of times during the Big Ten season and practiced all week simulated matches so there was no need to pull the curtain on the Wolverines season just yet.
They needed to keep their poise and have their big hitters rise to the occasion. Everyone in the gym knew the stakes.
Lose and go home. Win and have a shot at facing No. 4-seed Nebraska next weekend.
“We just needed to regroup,” Bower said. “We all told each other we were going to win this match.”
After kills from Karpiak and Bower knotted the score at 11, the Wolverines were back in contention.
With Michigan ahead 13-12 in the final stanza, Karpiak delivered yet another kill to put the Wolverines ahead by two.
A St. Louis attack error clinched the victory.
Karpiak and Bower combined for 37 of 69 Michigan kills, and Zimmerman dished out 52 assists to lead the Michigan offense.
“Lexi did a great job of reading their defense tonight and then finding the open hitter,” Karpiak said.
The way the tandem of Karpiak and Bower stepped up their game against St. Louis was evidence of a solid, well-rounded team.
If the Wolverines are going to advance further into the NCAA Tournament, they need even more stellar performances from both players.
The scouting report on Michigan might now read: “Commit to Karpiak, Bower, and Paz.”
If Nebraska makes the same mistake of committing its blockers too early like St. Louis, look for another Wolverine to step up.