Five service errors for the No. 13 Michigan volleyball team in the first set established the tone of Friday night’s matchup against No. 20 Northwestern. But despite losing the first set and committing more mistakes than the Wildcats, the Wolverines rebounded to win in four sets.
Michigan (7-1 Big Ten, 18-2 overall) and Northwestern entered the game in a three-way tie for first in the Big Ten with No. 8 Illinois, but neither looked dominant, as the game at Cliff Keen Arena featured a comical number of blunders. The sides exchanged sloppy points for most of the night, combining for 54 attack errors and 21 service errors — two of the four set points were won on unforced errors.
“To be a really good team, we have to learn how to win when we have our ‘A’ game going, and we have to win the nights when it’s not going,” Michigan coach Mark Rosen said after the game. “Tonight, it wasn’t. Tonight was a struggle, there was no question.”
Coming off consecutive triple-double performances against the then-sixth-ranked Fighting Illini and Michigan State, senior setter Lexi Zimmerman finished the match with 41 assists, but appeared to play tentatively after a pair of attack errors in the first set.
Junior outside hitter Alex Hunt was limited to 12 kills and an attack percentage of .067.
“I think we could have done a better job executing the game plan, to be completely honest,” Hunt said. “I’m glad we got the win tonight, but there are just a lot of things that we can work on in practice this week.”
Rosen gave credit to the Wildcats’ blocking — Northwestern (5-2, 15-3) tallied 11 team blocks.
“They’re a very good system team,” Rosen said. “They know how to pick on your system and get you out of your system.”
With two of their primary offensive leaders performing less effectively than usual, the Wolverines saw their younger players step up. Freshman outside hitter Jennifer Cross led the Wolverines with a career-best 16 kills.
Cross hit a crucial kill in the fourth set that gave them an advantage for match point after the Wildcats rallied from a four-point deficit to tie it up.
“You don’t want to give her too much (responsibility) as a freshman,” Zimmerman said. “She’s doing great, and she’s handling pressure situations really well.”
The win put Michigan in a tie with Illinois atop the conference, and though this is the team’s best start under Rosen and bolsters its chances for its first Big Ten title since 1981, Rosen wants his team to remain nearsighted.
“We haven’t talked (about the conference title), and we won’t,” Rosen said. “We haven’t thought about the big picture. It’s way early. There’s a lot of schedule left.”
The Wolverines head to Bloomington, Indiana on Friday to kick off a four-game road series. Zimmerman said the team will enjoy the victory and use the upcoming week of practice to correct their mistakes and get back to playing “Michigan volleyball.”
“We’ve built some confidence going into (the road games), which is nice, but we’re not going to sit back on our heels,” Zimmerman said.