The No. 15 Michigan volleyball team is perhaps relieved to be back in Ann Arbor after splitting two straight weekend road trips that doubled its loss total for the season, dropping the team two games behind conference-leading Illinois in the Big Ten.
Two weeks after Michigan upset No. 6 Illinois at home, the Illini (11-1 Big Ten, 19-3 overall) got their revenge in Urbana-Champaign on Friday, winning the match in five sets to increase their Big Ten lead over Michigan and No. 9 Penn State.
On Saturday, the Wolverines bounced back, beating Wisconsin in Madison for the first time since 1992 and erasing a 17-match losing streak at Wisconsin Field House. In doing so, after 24 games this team became the fastest Michigan squad ever to reach 20 wins.
“Each year, we try to improve the program,” junior outside hitter Alex Hunt said after the match Sunday. “This is just the next step to getting the program to the elite level. We want to consistently be with teams that make it far in the NCAA Tournament.”
Illinois came out strong in the first set on Friday, pummeling Michigan, 25-11. The Wolverines recorded only eight kills in the set, tying a season low.
Michigan coach Mark Rosen said the team was frustrated and tried to do too much in the first set, but he was pleased with the players’ ability to regroup afterward.
Michigan (9-3, 20-4) stormed back, taking the second set, 25-16, before dropping the third 25-20.
The Wolverines pulled even in a dramatic fourth set, during which both teams blew leads. Michigan jumped out to an 8-1 lead before squandering it, as Illinois pulled ahead 16-15. However, down 24-21 and facing match-point, Michigan pulled off five straight points, highlighted by three kills from Hunt, to secure the 26-24 set win.
A slow start to the fifth set doomed Michigan though, as Illinois went ahead 4-0. Michigan’s comeback closed the gap to 10-9, but the Illini closed the door and took the set, 15-12.
“We were a little inconsistent and they did a great job of their game and we came up a little bit short,” Rosen said. “We were in that fifth set and had a chance to win it and I was proud of how we played.”
Hunt finished with 20 kills and 12 digs while senior defensive specialist Maggie Busch tallied a career-high 19 digs.
Michigan rebounded the next night against the Badgers, beating Wisconsin (3-9, 14-9) in four sets, allowing the Wolverines to pull to even on the road trip.
Three Wolverines racked up double-digit kills in the game. Hunt finished with 20, redshirt sophomore right side Claire McElheny had 16 and freshman middle blocker Jennifer Cross registered 10 kills.
“We definitely came out more focused on our side of the court and played better floor defense and exploited their weaknesses,” Hunt said about the win over Wisconsin.
Next weekend, the Wolverines stay home to play Penn State on Friday and then Ohio State on Saturday.
“We love being at (Cliff) Keen (Arena),” said McElheny. “We try to keep up the same consistency on the road as at home, but it’s easier when you have a great crowd.”
The Wolverines’ toughest test the rest of the season could come on Friday against perennially dominant Penn State. Michigan has lost 16 consecutive games to the Nittany Lions dating back to 2002. Rosen said a lot of preparation would go into this match as both Michigan and Penn State are fighting to catch Illinois. He stressed the importance of beating the Nittany Lions, who he called the hottest team in the conference.
“We have to hope that Illinois loses a little bit,” said Rosen. “But we can control what we do. We just have to take care of our business and win the eight remaining games on our schedule.”