Last year, the Michigan volleyball team experienced a season-long theme of frustration and heartache.
A losing record, no tournament bid and an overall bad taste in their mouths led the Wolverines to set one goal for the 2006 season:
Play in December.
The team accomplished that goal by the slimmest of margins, losing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to Cal Poly 3-1 on Dec. 1.
But before they played the match, the Wolverines had to play the waiting game. The days prior to it seemed to go by slower and slower.
“We got out (to San Luis Obispo, Calif.) pretty early on Wednesday,” junior Lyndsay Miller said. “I was so excited to play. I spent the whole time just itching to get out there on the court.”
Finally, on Friday night, in front of nearly 3,000 energized Cal Poly fans – the largest crowd ever to watch a volleyball game in Mott Gym – the Wolverines took the court for their first NCAA Tournament match since 2004.
Game one showcased a high level of play from both sides of the net, but the Mustangs strung together four small runs that the Wolverines couldn’t find answers to, and Cal Poly took the game 30-23.
“We came out in game one pretty timid,” freshman Megan Bower said. “We didn’t really know what to expect (from Cal Poly), and they just played much steadier than us.”
Like its play during the Big Ten season, Michigan started slowly but soon regained its composure. The Wolverines came out swinging in game two, dedicated to putting themselves back into position to upset Cal Poly (13-1 Big West, 23-5 overall).
All year, Michigan has thrived when playing the role of the aggressor. Friday night was no different. With their backs against the wall, the Wolverines went on a killing spree, recording 21 of their 58 total kills in the second game.
Along with the forceful offensive play, Michigan’s defense settled down and played a steadier game. Cal Poly couldn’t penetrate the stout Wolverine defense, tallying just 10 kills in the 30-26 Michigan win.
“I was impressed by our team’s ability to respond to Cal Poly’s start,” Michigan coach Mark Rosen said. “After a tough first game, we were able to find a way to fight back.”
Michigan had Cal Poly on its toes, but wasn’t able to capitalize on the momentum gained in game two.
The Mustangs followed a common strategy in game three that Michigan was forced to deal with often toward the end of the season: key on junior Katie Bruzdzinski.
Cal Poly began to set up triple blocks on the left side of the net in an attempt to slow down the All-Big Ten first teamer’s offensive output.
The strategy worked, and Bruzdzinski, who broke the Michigan single-season kill record with 537, was limited to five kills in the last two games combined. She recorded 11 in the games prior to intermission.
While Cal Poly’s defense found a way to stunt Michigan’s best offensive player, the Wolverines’ defense had no answer for the Mustang’s star, sophomore sensation Kylie Atherstone.
The 2006 Big West Co-Player of the Year showed why she was given the accolade, recording 24 kills in the match. Michigan attempted several strategies to slow her down, but was unsuccessful in each attempt.
“(Atherstone) was like a kid that gets a hot hand in basketball,” Rosen said. “He keeps making shots and you can’t do anything to stop him.”
Bruzdzinksi’s absence on offense and the overwhelming power of Atherstone’s blazing the tournament in the opening round.
“Unfortunately, we couldn’t pull one out tonight,” Miller said. “I know we’re going to go into next year with a pretty big chip on our shoulder, though.”
Although the Wolverines proved they could compete with top-tier teams at points throughout the season, Rosen said they often lacked the consistency that makes good teams great.
That consistency could improve immensely next season with the amount of talent returning and the chip on their collective shoulder.
“We’re going to work our butts off in the offseason,” Bower said. “We’re not coming to this tournament next year and losing like this again.”