If wins over No. 14 Minnesota and No. 9 Nebraska were examples of an underdog upset for the Michigan volleyball team, Northwestern certainly gave the Wolverines a taste of their own medicine on Friday night in Evanston.
After breezing by the Wildcats (4-12 Big Ten, 15-12 overall) in the first meeting at home, Michigan looked poised to add a sixth game to its win streak with a little less of a challenge than it had against ranked Big Ten opponents. Four close sets later, the Wolverines were unable to edge out a win, dropping the match 25-22, 23-25, 27-29, 18-25.
“We didn’t play bad, we just didn’t play well enough to put them away,” said Michigan coach Mark Rosen.
In true Michigan style, tied at 10-10 in the first set, sophomore setter Lexi Dannemiller set up junior outside hitter Lexi Erwin, sparking a four-point run and a subsequent Northwestern timeout. The Wolverines extended their mid-set run to 18-12, forcing another Wildcat timeout after a kill from freshman middle blocker Krystalyn Goode.
Despite a comeback from Northwestern to tie the score at 21-21, a timely hit and block from junior middle blocker Jennifer Cross and a service ace from Erwin a secured first-set win for Michigan. Junior outside hitter Molly Toon had seven kills on the set while the Lexi-Lexi pair connected for three.
Down 6-1 at the start of the second set, Michigan spent much of the half playing catch-up to the Wildcats, who were hitting nearly .400. While senior middle blocker Claire McElheny recorded six kills, Toon was silent on the set. The Wolverines’ first lead came with the score at 18-17 after two Northwestern errors. But the late surge was not enough to steal the win, as Michigan fell 25-23.
“All night we were trying to get in the zone of playing smooth and in a rhythm, but we couldn’t find that zone tonight,” Rosen said. “It was a struggle. Some nights that’s gonna happen, but you just have to find a way to win without your best game.”
The third set opened in similar manner to the first two sets, with the two teams locking scores five times within the first ten points. Despite taking a slim 13-10 lead, the Wolverines were unable to maintain a slight advantage through the rest of the set. With its last timeout used and a yellow card for a substitution error, Michigan found itself tied in extra points at 27-27, and went on to the lose the set 29-27.
“We were forced to sort of grind it out but we couldn’t do that tonight,” Rosen said. “We were up 18-14 in the third set and if we held that lead, we would have been up 2-1 in the match.”
Michigan opened the fourth set in a four-point hole to bring on a double time out. Kills from Erwin and Cross tied the set at 7-7 for the Wolverines, putting them back on pace for another close set. Michigan, having hit just .131 in the third set, paired 14 kills with 11 hitting errors for a poor .073 in the final set.
“Northwestern played a great game,” Rosen said. “They played defense, they served aggressively, and they kept us off balance all night.”
Being that the Wolverines have taken two matches from top-10 opponents – then-No.4 Nebraska and then-No. 10 Minnesota – and almost snatching a win from a nearly invincible team in Penn State, they have the talent to be ranked.
But after the loss to Northwestern and with only three games remaining, it remains to be seen if the Wolverines will be able to crack the top-25 by the end of the season. Left on the schedule is a tough Illinois team, along with road matches against Ohio State and Michigan State (both to whom Michigan has lost this season.)
Confidence has been the key in Michigan’s success throughout the second half. Confidence, Rosen hopes, will back on Saturday in Champaign.