Amid the season of term papers and final exams, 16 Michigan students have a different kind of final on the brain: the Final Four.
Having made history Saturday against No. 2 Stanford in the Elite Eight in four sets, the Michigan volleyball team will be back in Louisville, studying up for its next big test in No. 3 Texas.
But the Wolverines could have just as easily been another group of students studying in the Fishbowl during finals week.
Since dropping two of the their final four matches of the season against unranked opponents, the Wolverines have put together a season-high six-game win streak at a time when it mattered most – the postseason. And while Michigan had seven consecutive postseason appearances before this year, Saturday’s victory was the first Final Four berth in team history.
“We knew we had the talent all along,” said Michigan coach Mark Rosen. “It was just a matter of putting it together.”
First, there was Tennessee, a team that finished second in the SEC with a 22-8 overall record. Despite an early 2-0 advantage for the Wolverines, it took five sets to put away the resilient Volunteers and advance.
Next, they faced Louisville. Playing on their home court, the ninth-ranked Cardinals were a another tough matchup for the Wolverines. But as it had last year – after upsetting No. 6 Stanford – Michigan prevailed into the Sweet 16.
Having bowed out of the NCAA Tournament in the Sweet 16 the previous year against Hawaii, Michigan headed out to California to battle in-state rival Michigan State at a neutral site this time. It was the teams third meeting this year and, like the regular season split would have predicted, anybody’s game. This time, though, three sets were enough to advance past the Spartans into the Elite Eight for the second time in three years.
Finally, the second-ranked Cardinal didn’t just have talent on their side – they had a grudge. Being eliminated from the tournament before the Sweet Sixteen was reason enough to take it to the net against unranked Michigan. But once again, it was an upset in favor of the underdogs. Once it was all said and done, the Wolverines were in the Final Four.
But up until the postseason, Michigan hadn’t been playing up to its potential. Sure, there were signature wins against Nebraska and Stanford, career-high nights for junior outside hitter Molly Toon and sophomore setter Lexi Dannemiller. There were also the disappointing losses to Northwestern in straight sets and Michigan State at home.
“We know that the games that we’ve lost we could have played a lot better,” said senior middle blocker Claire McElheny. “Whether we would have won (those games) or not, I don’t know.”
As any University student will tell you: it’s all about the final.
No. 3 Texas heads back to Louisville with a 27-4 record having breezed by Colgate, Texas A&M, Florida and finally USC to earn a place in the Final Four. Much like the Wolverines, the Longhorns put together a strong second half, winning 17 of its last 18 matches. But Texas’ four losses this season came against Penn State, Minnesota, Illinois – two teams Michigan defeated. Michigan also put up a better fight against then-No. 1 Penn State than the Longhorns who were swept in three sets.
“We definitely feel like we deserve to be there (in the championship),” Dannemiller said before the first round.
Now all the Wolverines have to do is pass Texas’s test.