With only six games remaining in the regular season, the No. 15 Michigan volleyball team can probably say two things for certain about themselves.
First, the team has found a winning formula: Michigan volleyball will live and die by serving, passing and senior setter Lexi Zimmerman.
Second, the Wolverines can challenge any opponent in the nation – ranked, rival or otherwise – with the exception of Penn State.
After a disappointing sweep at the hands of the Nittany Lions the previous night, Michigan (10-4 Big Ten, 21-5 overall) returned to Cliff Keen Arena on Saturday night to face a physical and aggressive Ohio State team, fresh from a sweep of its own against Michigan State. But there wasn’t much time to try and tell whether the Buckeyes ever had any momentum going into the match. The Wolverines disposed of them in three sets, in anticlimactic fashion.
“Tonight we just came out and focused on our side of the court,” junior outside hitter Alex Hunt said on Saturday. “(We weren’t) concerned about what was going on on the other side.”
Ohio State (7-7 Big Ten, 19-8 overall) appeared undisciplined as a team, surrendering the first two set points with service errors.
“Their gameplan was to serve the ball really aggressively because they felt like they couldn’t compete with us offensively,” Michigan coach Mark Rosen said. “Once we got our passing really strong, we forced them into making mistakes.”
The passing game also allowed Zimmerman and the hitters to find success. Zimmerman posted 37 assists, and Hunt led the team with 17 kills and an attack percentage of .500.
Hunt’s effectiveness was also the result of other hitters stepping up. Freshman middle blocker Jennifer Cross and redshirt sophomore right-side hitter Claire McElheny, whose emergence as a legitimate hitting threat has solidified her position in the offense, each had nine kills.
“I thought Lexi did a great job keeping our offense balanced,” Rosen said. “Part of the reason (Hunt) was hot was because (Zimmerman) got the middles going, she got Claire going, and so now all of a sudden they can’t just focus on (blocking Hunt).”
The Buckeyes had no answer for the Wolverines’ hitting game, and the growing frustration led them to fold in the third set, 25-17. This was the first time in 13 games that Michigan has been able to win in three sets, the last one coming against Iowa in September.
According to Hunt, the key to the dominant performance was bringing “Michigan volleyball” back onto the court.
“Good floor defense, good serving and getting the other team out of system,” said Hunt. “Yes, Michigan volleyball was back.”
The weekend might have been even better had “Michigan volleyball” shown up 24 hours earlier.
On Friday night, the Wolverines hosted the ninth-ranked Nittany Lions (11-3 Big Ten, 21-4 overall), looking for a historic upset in front of a sell-out home crowd, but their hopes were dashed in three sets. Penn State imposed a 7-1 lead in the first set and left Michigan unable to recover.
“We were on our heels, and before we knew it, that was the match,” said Zimmerman, who tallied only 27 assists.
The Wolverines’ hitters couldn’t seem to get anything going against the Nittany Lions’ towering front three. Hunt had only eight kills, and the team averaged a .069 attack percentage.
Penn State’s blocking forced Michigan out of its gameplan so early that, despite the team gaining a brief lead in the second set, Rosen felt as if the team was playing catch-up the entire match.
“I thought they applied pressure right off the bat, and we got forced into a bunch of errors,” Rosen said. “It’s not a good feeling to be fighting from behind. It pushed us outside our comfort zone.”
The outcome breaks the two teams’ second-place tie in the Big Ten standings. The Nittany Lions are now the only team to have beaten the Wolverines twice this season, and they improve their winning streak against Michigan to 17-0 since 2002.
With defeat on their mind and no time for practice the next day, the Wolverines went into the locker room and spoke about Saturday night’s match against Ohio State.
“(Tomorrow night) could be a defining moment for us as a team,” Zimmerman said. “We talked a lot about how we are going to respond to this.”
And what a commanding response it was.
Michigan heads into a pair of road games against Minnesota and Iowa this weekend before returning to Cliff Keen Arena on Nov. 19 to face Purdue. The Wolverines have already beaten each team once this season.