On Saturday, the ingredients for the Michigan volleyball team to advance to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament were there: experience, senior leadership and a refuse-to-give-up mentality.
But it took a 2-0 match deficit for the ingredients to start boiling.
The 16th-ranked Wolverines squared off against Ohio University in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday after advancing past Niagara the night before.
And after two sets, the Bobcats looked like they would easily advance to the third round.
“We looked at each other (after the second set) and refused to lose,” senior captain Megan Bower said.
That’s when Michigan’s strengths began to surface.
In last year’s NCAA Tournament, the Wolverines were down 2-1 in the first and second round and rallied to win in five sets on both occasions.
Michigan (26-9) had been in a come-from-behind situation before, and this predicament was nothing new for the veteran team.
All of the Wolverines’ current starters played in last year’s tournament, so everyone had the confidence and trust in each other to rebound from the 2-0 hole.
But against Ohio, the Wolverines would have to win three sets in a row after losing the first two, a feat the team hadn’t accomplished all season.
“This team has been playing together for two years, and we just looked into each other’s eyes, and we knew we were going to win,” outside hitter Juliana Paz said.
The Wolverines were facing an Ohio team that upended Notre Dame — the Big East undefeated regular season champion — the previous night in five sets.
Michigan’s offensive average was an abysmal .172 in the first two frames.
Michigan coach Mark Rosen said the team wasn’t running its offense at the right tempo, and Ohio (27-7) had time to set up its block and prevent the Wolverine offense from grabbing momentum.
After the break, Michigan ran out of the locker room with the game plan necessary to fuel a comeback.
The Wolverines (26-9) got back into their rhythm due in large part to junior setter Lexi Zimmerman’s play.
Zimmerman found the senior hot hitters, who shot through holes in Ohio’s blockers en route to a five-set win. Michigan will play in the Sweet 16 for the third consecutive year.
“When our backs were against the wall and our your season looks to be over and how (our players) fought back — I couldn’t be more proud of them,” Rosen said. “That’s just heart and players who didn’t want to be done.”
Seniors Paz and Veronica Rood led the Wolverines with 18 and 13 kills, respectively. It was the seniors who carried Michigan against the Bobcats, and if the team expects to have any shot at beating fourth-seeded Stanford this upcoming weekend, it’ll take that same type of performance and execution.
“The skill part (of our seniors) has been great,” Rosen said. “But it’s more about their determination and their drive. … I’ve said for it for years that you go as far as your seniors can take you. It doesn’t matter if their numbers are the best or whatever. It’s your seniors that drive the bus. These guys are driving it.”