Michigan volleyball coach Mark Rosen didn’t envision his team losing 17 games this season, but he’s coming to terms with that reality after Saturday.
The Wolverines fell to Illinois in four sets, 25-22, 20-25, 14-25, 14-25, to end the season.
Michigan (8-12 Big Ten, 13-17 overall) started the match on the right foot, winning the first set, but the Fighting Illini responded quickly.
“We were up two points throughout (the second game), and right toward the end of the match they just pulled ahead of us and kind of pulled away with it,” Rosen said. “I thought that was a little bit of a momentum breaker for us.”
Illinois went on to take the next three sets and spoiled any hopes of ending the season on a high note. The Wolverines’ record doesn’t qualify them for the NCAA tournament, and now they’re forced to reconcile their record as they prepare for next year.
“Our expectations next year are going to be through the roof,” said freshman middle blocker Claire Keiffer-Wright. “I think that we’ll be very competitive practicing, as well as very competitive when we step on the court for a game.”
Illinois started three seniors, while setter Lexi Dannemiller was the only senior on the floor for Michigan. More notably, four of the six Wolverine starters were either sophomores or freshmen. Rosen knew he was going to have a young team even before two projected starters, both juniors, suffered season-ending injuries. The growing pains have been a source of consternation all year long and, again, were highlighted in Champaign.
The passing and offensive attack that gave Michigan the early lead fell off in the second set and allowed Illinois to draw equal. The Wolverines’ attack had new energy in the next set, running the offense well. But a few spectacular defensive plays and the ability to score in transition kept the Illini on top and made Michigan kills a rare commodity.
“We weren’t making mistakes; they were just making great plays,” Rosen said.
Keiffer-Wright earned a team best and career-high 11 kills against the stout Illinois defense, but battling through momentum shifts eventually proved too much to handle.
“They started picking up where they were lacking on the first set, we couldn’t keep up with them and we were a little bit inconsistent both offensively and defensively,” Keiffer-Wright said. “It was tough today in the locker room because this was not the season we anticipated.”
Despite the disappointing end, Rosen said next year holds promise, especially considering the team’s steady improvements throughout the season, and the fact that he’ll see most players return a year more experienced.
“I’m really proud of this team, I’m excited about the foundation we’re building,” Rosen said. “The culture of this team was really strong.”
Rosen is optimistic, but knows he’s losing one of his team’s best players in Dannemiller, who has over 5,000 assists over her distinguished career and was named to the preseason All-Big Ten Team. If the Wolverines are to improve on their 2014 record, her absence next year undoubtedly leaves a hole for Rosen to fill.