On the first point of the second set in Michigan’s final home match, Minnesota senior Katherine Harms collided with the scorer’s table in pursuit of a ball, knocking the panel marked “Michigan volleyball” out of alignment.
It seemed a microcosm of the match itself, a clash between two Big Ten teams each looking to preserve a four-game win streak headed into the final weeks of the regular season. Though the tumble caused a brief delay in game, it was the only interruption the Wolverines faced on senior night in front of a crowd of 1,800 on Saturday.
With its fifth-straight victory, Michigan (9-7 Big Ten, 21-9 overall) continued its second-half turnaround, beating No. 10 Minnesota in three sets, 25-23, 25-19, 25-13.
“That win felt really good,” said senior middle blocker Claire McElheny. “Especially on senior night, last home game. It was a great crowd, great environment and I just couldn’t ask for anything more than that.”
The first set opened as yet another tough battle for Michigan, with the two teams sharing the lead seven times and matching one another at the net. But consistent sideouts were key in maintaining a slight advantage for the Wolverines who lost their lead just twice in the set.
“We put a lot of pressure on them,” said Michigan coach Mark Rosen. “Every time they tried to make a little run we just did a great job defensively.”
After being tied at 12-12, junior defensive specialist Ally Sabol dug three hard-hit balls from Minnesota’s 6-foot-1 outside hitter Daly Santana to set up three straight kills from junior outside hitter Molly Toon and give Michigan its first run in the match. The Wolverines held on to the narrow lead to take the first set 25-23.
“We just kept them off balance all night,” Rosen said.
Despite hitting under .200 through 12 points in the second set, the Wolverines pulled away after three kills from McElheny, finishing the match hitting near .400. Junior outside hitter Lexi Erwin added seven kills of her own in the set.
“We’re not done,” McElheny said. “We didn’t play perfect and we probably never will, but we can make plays here and there that we didn’t make tonight. It’s never going to be 100% clean, but (the win) felt really good.”
What was near perfect was a hustle Rosen called “relentless and steady.” Balls hitting the ceiling and the faces of players were common throughout the first two sets. With a five-point lead on set point in the second, sophomore setter Lexi Dannemiller dove under the net towards Minnesota’s bench to save a shanked ball.
“We have the mentality that we’re just going to go for it no matter what,” Dannemiller said. “We’re going to take risks. That’s part of the team chemistry, being able to trust each other and play free, go hard and have fun.”
From the first point of the third set, Michigan’s domination was apparent. The team took an early 5-1 lead that could not be tested by the Minnesota offense. In fact, eight of the Golden Gophers’ 13 points on the set came from Michigan errors. While holding Minnesota to a .143 kill percentage, the Wolverines hit an impressive .654 percent to secure the sweep.
“That was a really good team,” Rosen said. “They’re ranked 10th in the country for a reason and I thought we came out and played very clean against them. It was one of the best matches we’ve had all year.”
The win is another step toward a possible seed in the NCAA Tournament, which would guarantee one more home game for the Wolverines.
“We’ve had the talent all along,” McElheny said. “And it was something that was really frustrating for a while because we knew we were good. In the last couple of weeks, just touching up on those communication things has really helped.”
A sub-par start to the season put Michigan in a hole entering the final month of regular-season play. Perhaps teams underestimated Michigan entering into their second meetings, or perhaps Michigan volleyball has hit its stride. Either way, according to Rosen, winning outright is the goal of this team for the rest of the season.
“We definitely feel like we deserve to be up there (in the top 25),” Dannemiller said. “Then again, it’s cool being the underdog because no one expects us to win and then when we do it’s just that much better feeling.”