Before the Michigan volleyball team stepped onto the court against Minnesota in Minneapolis, it was clear that the Wolverines were underdogs. The Gophers had a better Big Ten record, had history on their side, and Michigan was coming off of a 3-1 upset, courtesy of Wisconsin.
Then senior outside hitter Alex Hunt sprained her ankle on a loose ball in warm-ups, leaving Michigan (6-10 Big Ten, 18-10 overall) without its leading scorer and floor captain.
The last time the Wolverines faced the Gophers, Hunt’s 21 kills kept her team alive through a tight five sets of match play. Without her, a loss to Minnesota (8-8, 15-20) seemed all but certain.
Through uncharacteristically clean play, Michigan found itself two sets ahead of Minnesota at 25-21 apiece — much like the teams’ last matchup, right before the Gophers exploded to win the next three sets handily. This time, Minnesota kept the third set tight, bringing the score within one near the end. But the Wolverines were able to put it away, earning a three-set sweep, 25-22.
Sophomore outside hitter Molly Toon provided the final nail in the coffin. Toon, charged with filling Hunt’s vacant slot, put up nine kills, the second highest of the match behind sophomore outside hitter Lexi Erwin’s 10.
“Molly has been working really hard this season, and has been looking for pressure situations where she can make a real impact,” Erwin said. “After Alex went down, the rest of us had a lot of pressure placed on us to perform and I think she handled it really well. She went out, was aggressive and played smart. It was fun to rep the sophomore class with her tonight.”
Aside from the team cohesion, the biggest factor in the upset victory was Michigan’s lack of errors. The Wolverines posted just eight attack errors overall — their lowest total of the season.
“We’ve been outscoring teams for a while,” said Michigan coach Mark Rosen. “But because of the errors we were making we were giving them two or three points to beat us.
“Tonight we made better decisions overall and it really paid off. It put pressure on our opponents by making them earn all their points, because this time they weren’t getting any free ones from us.”
Although the team has been talking about “turning the corner” on its season since the start of the second batch of Big Ten games, the match against Minnesota is the first sign of a true turnaround.
“After the Wisconsin game, we went into the locker room and got real with each other for the first time in a while,” Erwin said. “We knew we were in a rut and that we’d been holding onto games too tightly because we were afraid of losing. We came to the consensus that we needed to play free and to stop holding onto our mistakes.
“Tonight, between our aggressive offense and our balls-out defense, we were able to run a ton of different plays through (freshman setter) Lexi Dannemiller. She was finding us holes in their blocks and everything worked together to get us the win.”
Hunt’s future, much like Michigan’s future, is uncertain. While the team wishes the best for its star, the game against Minnesota proves that they have the bench to pull out games in clutch situations.
“Coming into this game, you could tell these girls were tired of all the off nights and were seriously looking to turn a corner,” Rosen said. “I feel like we would have had the same outcome (with or without Hunt) because I think the team played really well. It’s tough to lose a player like her, but it’s also great to see a team rally around that. It showed off our depth and helped our strength as a team.”